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Far to the west of the North American continent, a team of scientists in a state-of-the-art nuclear facility have crafted the most powerful laser ever.  Using a crazy disco apparatus they plan to concentrate the energy of this super weapon against a miniscule capsule of exotic material.  By doing so, they hope to ignite a nuclear fusion reaction–the colossal source of energy which powers the stars themselves. These bold men and women are on a quest to leash the fires of heaven.  

Am I making all this up to boost ratings?  Not at all: it’s the mission statement of the National Ignition Facility (NIF) run by Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in Livermore California.  Being level-headed scientists, they have stated their agenda more prosaically (although only slightly).  Here’s the explanatory statement from their (really cool) website:

NIF, a program of the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), will focus the intense energy of 192 giant laser beams on a BB-sized target filled with hydrogen fuel, fusing the hydrogen atoms’ nuclei and releasing many times more energy than it took to initiate the fusion reaction. NIF is capable of creating temperatures and pressures similar to those that exist only in the cores of stars and giant planets and inside nuclear weapons.  Achieving nuclear fusion in the laboratory is at the heart of the directorate’s three complementary missions:

  • Helping ensure the nation’s security without nuclear weapons testing (see National Security)
  • Blazing the path to a safe, virtually unlimited, carbon-free energy future (see Energy for the Future)
  • Achieving breakthroughs in a wide variety of scientific disciplines, including astrophysics, materials science, the use of lasers in medicine, radioactive and hazardous waste treatment, particle physics and X-ray and neutron science (see Understanding the Universe).

So they certainly have lofty goals and they also possess a facility that looks like science fiction.

To approximate the heat and pressure of stars and hydrogen bombs, the scientists use an ultraviolet laser, which for about 20 billionths of a second can generate 500 trillion watts. They will blast a pea sized gold cylinder containing the hydrogen fuel.  According to a press release from two days ago, the system is now operational.  The first test experiments are going well. To quote the facility director, Ed Moses, concerning the first integrated experiments,  “From both a system integration and from a physics point of view, this experiment was outstanding. This is a great moment in the 50-year history of inertial confinement fusion. It represents significant progress in our ability to field complex experiments in support of our NNSA Stockpile Stewardship, Department of Defense, fundamental science and energy missions.”

The NIF scientists will now begin a series of experiments which will hopefully culminate in nuclear fusion later this fall.

Unfortunately if the scientists don't wear bell-bottoms and play the Bee Gees all the time, the system goes off line.

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