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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