The Laser Beam 1,000 Times as Powerful as the U.S.

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Damien Jemison / LLNL

For all the heady talk about the misleadingly “deific,” recently confirmed quantum specks named after a Scottish physicist, another kind of historic event has transpired: in a shot fired on July 5, a record-shattering laser beam generated more power than the U.S. does at any single instant.

Spooky or astonishing? How about both. Think of it as extreme sports science, a kind of lab-based game of one-upmanship in which researchers fiddle with incredibly complex, painstakingly calibrated machinery to produce unprecedented results — then outdo them.

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That’s what the National Ignition Facility — home to the world’s largest laser — did when it pulled the trigger on 192 beams of optically amplified, electromagnetic-radiation-emitting light, all fired within a few trillionths of a second of one another, to deliver 500 trillion watts (or terawatts) of “peak power” and 1.85 megajoules of ultraviolet laser light.

Framed in more eye-catching terms, the NIF says 500 terawatts outpaces the entire U.S. for power used “at any instant in time” and that 1.85 megajoules amounts to roughly 100 times what any other laser produces regularly. No wonder those two power-unit prefixes (tera- and mega-) come from Greek words meaning monster and great.

Then again, what else would you expect from a laser housed in a building the size of three football fields, or a science lab with a word like ignition in its moniker?

The NIF, located in Livermore, Calif., came online in March 2009, and its goals are manifold: its primary mission, with funding by the National Nuclear Security Administration (“a semi-autonomous agency within the U.S. Department of Energy responsible for enhancing national security through the application of nuclear science to the nation’s national security enterprise”), is to duplicate what happens in contemporary nuclear weapons, in part to render underground nuclear testing unnecessary.

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But it’s also a repository for scientists — the same sort who poke around at sub-subatomic levels for elemental quantum particles — looking to understand “extreme states of matter that exist in the centers of planets, stars and other celestial objects.”

And last but not least — well, beyond the holster-loaded conventions of mere pulp sci-fi skirmishing — the NIF laser is about puzzling out something called fusion ignition, the point at which nuclear-fusion reactions become self-sustaining, to “provide abundant and sustainable clean energy,” according to the NIF.

Fusion reaction is perhaps the most exciting of the NIF’s goals: to catalyze self-sustaining nuclear fusion, wherein two light atomic nuclei “fuse” together and produce a single heavier nucleus while converting some of that mass to incredible amounts of energy. That, in so many words, is how stars are born, and it’s something scientists have been working to achieve since the 1950s.

The 500-terawatt shot on July 5 brings scientists closer to solving a long-standing physics challenge and perhaps the field’s holy grail: getting back more energy than you give.

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“The 500 TW shot is an extraordinary accomplishment by the NIF Team, creating unprecedented conditions in the laboratory that hitherto only existed deep in stellar interiors,” said MIT physicist Richard Petrasso in a statement on the NIF’s site. “For scientists across the nation and the world who, like ourselves, are actively pursuing fundamental science under extreme conditions and the goal of laboratory fusion ignition, this is a remarkable and exciting achievement.”

The July 5 shot was actually the NIF’s third in a series of test-fires, a series that’s seen power ramped up by nearly 100 terawatts since March 15, when the NIF fired a shot that delivered 1.8 megajoules and peak power of 411 terawatts.

And while electricity produced by sustained, controlled fusion reactions may not be commercially viable, well, ever, depending on who you talk to — some say 30 to 40 years; others say indefinitely, given the technical challenges of putting star stuff in a container — the July 5 laser shot appears to be a major step forward.

“NIF is becoming everything scientists planned when it was conceived over two decades ago,” said NIF director Edward Moses of the July 5 shot. In January 2012, Moses predicted that fusion ignition would happen “in the next 6 to 18 months.”

We’re getting close, in other words, to what you might call “the end of the beginning” of the very long and expensive road — an experimental international fusion reactor being built in France is said to cost nearly $20 billion — to theoretically limitless energy generation.

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92 comments
LenSimpson
LenSimpson

" Whatever the mind can conceive, will eventually be accomplished."

Obbop
Obbop

"The NIF, located in Livermore, Calif."

Now you know why your electric bill is sky-high.

Azivegu
Azivegu

uhmmm... to get helium from hydrogen, you need 4 H, not 2. Two protons are needed to convert into neutrons and the loss of mass in that proces gives of great energy, in a nutshell.

John999wq
John999wq

Oh wait... 1.85 megajoules. 

Take a look at the energy provided by a McDonalds breakfast sandwich.  I think you're going to be disappointed by the numbers this article is illustrating...

John999wq
John999wq

This story isn't all that impressive.  Wattage is measured in joules per second (J/s).  So, you can get higher "wattage" by just reducing the delivery time for a set amount of energy.  1 Joule delivered in 1/1000th of a second is 1000 Watts of power.  

Why don't you guys relay the actual energy delivered by the lasers to the target?

DavidKay
DavidKay

It is much easier to use neutron source from a "fusion" reactor to breed depleted uranium into fuel for nuclear weapons then it is to make a fusion power plant.

earldgrayjr
earldgrayjr like.author.displayName 1 Like

Fusion ignition happens for only an instant (in this case) and then it is over....The promise is that more energy is received back than is put in...  The process is repeated over and over like a pulse furnace...

I am sure the right wing will invent some reason to be against it though....  I wonder what it will be?

apl1
apl1

If it is indeed valuable, how long before the chinese steal the tech???  They have little of their own tech, either steal it or buy it

Don Gwynne
Don Gwynne like.author.displayName 1 Like

If " fusion ignition' is achieved, is there an off switch; or, do we become a star?

Kelley Trezise
Kelley Trezise

This event is nothing to celebrate. Inertial confinement will never result in a power fusion reactor. The data being gathered with these experiments will be used to test computer code used to simulate such events and in the end be used to simulate atomic weapon explosions and be used for the design of such weapons. This experiment is a fig leaf covering atomic weapon research.

SwiftrightRight
SwiftrightRight

@Kelley Trezise I would say that its a saber hiding a dove since federally funded fusion power research is illegal in the US. The only way to conduct home grown federal research is to hide it out in the open as a weapons program. At this point there is just as good of a chance that inertialy confined fusion will end up being profitable as there is magnetically confined fusion will be profitable. 

Whatnow05
Whatnow05

Now to attach it to a sharks head...or polar bear. I'm cool with either one. 

Rex L.Rice
Rex L.Rice like.author.displayName 1 Like

The oil,coal and nuclear industries will spend billions to stop it. that is the problem we have now in our country!!!!

danielnheisner
danielnheisner

@Rex L.Rice It's true! BP, Shell and Mobil are joining with the governments of Saudi Arabia,Iran,Kuwait, Nigeria,

and Norway and the State of West Virginia to hire the Russian mob to poison all fusion scientists with umbrellas.

The nuclear industry can't find anyone who will work with them. The frackers are experimenting with poisoning

water supplies of pro-fusion advocates. The wind power and solar people are the most insidious opposition. They

are teaming with PETA to find a way to stop fusion. 

Khan
Khan

i wanna see more pics

John Darling
John Darling

MANN.. That is HARD CORE What happens to those people when they get shot by that HARD CORE MILITARY Laser gun we finally designed(ah just kidding I didnt design it, I wish, or I wish the Usa did at least)maybe we can steal it?(or me and a few nggas I know can steal it at least)

Danyz
Danyz

Well, but Doc Ock thought he had this fusion thing all figured out, too...

Liberty Newspost
Liberty Newspost like.author.displayName 1 Like

What a boondagle.  Scientist, even M.I.T. Scientist, have been getting more energy out in their cold fusion experiments for years time magazine covers it once 23 years ago.  Get the facts of Cold Fusion its real and its coming soon.  The "Hot Fusion" people are mad they spent half a billion dollars and still have little to show for it.  Get the facts:

http://libertynewspost.blogspo...

Tex_Pepper
Tex_Pepper like.author.displayName 1 Like

"...electro-magnetic-generating-light..."

Okay, stop right there. 

1. Light does not *emit* electromagnetic radiation. Light *is* electromagnetic radiation.

2. Lasers do not produce power, they convert other forms of energy - typically electrical or chemical energy (and sometimes light energy, but at other wavelengths) into light energy.

3. Power is distinct from energy. Power is the *rate* at which energy is produced or consumed. The power levels attained by this laser are for an extremely brief fraction of a second. During this interval the laser's power output exceeds the power produced by the entire United States over this same interval, but only during this interval.

4. 1.85 megajoules is not very much energy, all things considered. The Grand Coulee hydroelectric dam in Washington state generates nearly eleven hundred times this much every second, 24/7.

dave_young
dave_young

I understand it was aimed at Joe Biden`s motorcade. Did they get it ?

Dan Frohlich
Dan Frohlich

why does the article not say what this laser was shot at?  something had to absorb this energy?

mom1983
mom1983 like.author.displayName 1 Like

Things like this shouldn't exist! Dismantle now while our planet is still together in one piece. And while at it..Dismantle all the nuclear power plants, energy weapons, and offshore oil rigs! One more thing..not too hard to outdo the U.S. power grid. We could all have free power w/magnetic or solar energy!!

Simpull
Simpull

Having worked at one of the primary NIF laser glass factories during the late 1990s and early 2000s, it's fascinating to watch this project finally come towards fruition.  Good job LLNL and all the scientists, researchers, and suppliers who helped make this happen!

GetAGrip3
GetAGrip3

Cool, we get even closer to cheap and unlimited power. When we achieve that we will be able to contribute even more to global warming.

My electric bill will be 1cent but I will have to live underground to escape the daily derecho.

MelloRed
MelloRed

 You do realize that fusion power does not release any CO2 right?  Such power would be one of the greatest achievements of humanity.

MelloRed
MelloRed

Now this is the type of research we should be focusing most of our energy research dollars on.  Not stop-gap green solutions reliant on scarce resources.  We know fusion power is possible and that it would provide virtually limitless power for all of humanity.

indianazombiesquadU1
indianazombiesquadU1

Please do not point this thing into space. It could mistakingly hit a far -off inhabited planet and trigger an interstellar war.

Soicanleavecomments OnBlogs
Soicanleavecomments OnBlogs

Yea unlimited power!!! We are getting there!!! If only we could spend more time on accomplishments in the USA and not me me me greed greed greed - society would be so much better as a whole.

Henry K. Barton
Henry K. Barton

Powerful megajoules laser beam for 500-terawatt shot, it is just brute force, which is not enough to harness fusion energy up to now and maybe never. It is needed the wise use of electrostatic acceleration, the most energy-efficient method to ensure a net energy gain.

James Beauchamp
James Beauchamp

The applications from these experiements aren't limited to fusion.  As a another poster stated, this is energy conversion on an extreme scale.  It can be used to study high energy pulse effects on materials (for example, fissionable material), methods for more efficient laser generation or new materials that lase with new wavelengths, or even to verify what the fusion product plasmas do when produced in magnetic fields.  The spinoffs are well worth the investment.  The challenge is justifying that in today's short-term mentality.  To me, this is really cool science at its best.

extexan987
extexan987

What did they point this laser at  during this single shot?

MelloRed
MelloRed

Not 100% sure in these tests, but for fusion it will be a tiny specially designed capsule with Deuterium, an isotope of Hydrogen in it.  There's good videos of it on the NIF's site.

xtc4u
xtc4u

Question : What happened to whatever they fired it into ? If fired into open space should we not send out ((((((( 4 )))))).........

extexan987
extexan987

What did they point the laser at?

cnnnnn
cnnnnn

gay 0bama the anti-Christ  and  gay Bush the False Prophet.

Times up gay 0bama July 2012..

"The Beast"------>gay 0bama....

    "Men worshiped the dragon, for he had given his authority to the beast [see Emperor], and they worshiped the beast, saying, "Who is like the beast, and who can fight against it?" And the beast was given a mouth uttering haughty and blasphemous words, and it was allowed to exercise authority for forty-two months; it opened its mouth to utter blasphemies against God, blaspheming His Name and His dwelling, that is, those who dwell in heaven. Also it was allowed to make war on the saints and to conquer them. And authority was given it over every tribe and people and tongue and nation, and all who dwell on earth will worship it, every one whose name has not been written before the foundation of the world in the book of life of the Lamb that was slain." (Revelation 13:4-8 RSV)

(Revelation 13:4-8 RSV)

42 months---->Times up in July 2012

Lando Thig
Lando Thig

Interesting.  I wonder what applications this laser has?  Scientifically, it may seem limited to some, but most likely it has vast potential.  The military implications are clear.  Men are good at manufacturing better ways to murder each other.

Bob Colvin
Bob Colvin

We have been playing around with this idea for 50+ years. With all the research done so far we can't even break even (energy in = energy out). This system using  magnetic fields or on the other giant lasers will never be viable they will never achieve the efficiency level required to mass produce for energy generation. The only way fusion can be economical with this method would be the ability to generate and amplify a gravitational field strong enough to fuse the hydrogen atoms.Since we don't really know how gravity works it may take hundreds of years to accomplish.There is hope however but mainstream science cannot think out of the box.COLD FUSION baby it's real and it works. To my fellow friends in science out there get your heads out of your butts and do the research you will be very surprised.

What_the_H377
What_the_H377

 Mr. Madison, what you've just said is one of the most insanely idiotic

things I have ever heard. At no point in your rambling, incoherent

response were you even close to anything that could be considered a

rational thought. Everyone in this room is now dumber for having

listened to it. I award you no points, and may God have mercy on your

soul.

What_the_H377
What_the_H377

 Mr. Madison, what you've just said is one of the most insanely idiotic

things I have ever heard. At no point in your rambling, incoherent

response were you even close to anything that could be considered a

rational thought. Everyone in this room is now dumber for having

listened to it. I award you no points, and may God have mercy on your

soul.

usnavy83
usnavy83

cool. need to equip that as a weapon.

spoton101
spoton101

Just shows our priorities which are slightly better pills, endless wars, ever increasing military budgets and a black hole of a health care system that swallow moneys from every pore and which no one can fix.

Its frustrating how France with just over 1/7 th of US GDP and a higher debt ratio without even an independent currency; can find the money and energy to grab 2 major tech projects,

the large hadron collider (of higgs fame)  and now a new fusion reactor.

Old Man Selmers
Old Man Selmers

Lee, quit trying to sound smart. You're embarrassing yourself.

Henry K. Barton
Henry K. Barton

Powerful megajoules laser beam for 500-terawatt shot, it is just brute force, which is not enough to harness fusion energy up to now and maybe never. It is needed the wise use of electrostatic acceleration, the most energy-efficient method to ensure a net energy gain. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v...

ArtInChicago
ArtInChicago

We need to keep this "laser" (making quotation marks with fingers in the air) from Dr. Evil