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Unprecedented and Very Exciting': Lab Produces Most Powerful Laser Blast in History


"...1,000 times the energy of all the power plants in the United States combined..."

Technician adjusts the target positioner inside the target chamber. (Photo: NIF)

It only lasted 23 billionths of a second but it generated 411 trillion watts of power. That's what you get when you fire up the world's most powerful laser, generating 192 beams toward a target in perfect unison and producing a record-setting 2.03 million joules (megajoules) of ultraviolet laser light.

The National Ignition Facility in Lawrence, Calif., conducted this historical laser blast on March 15 as part of its research for fusion ignition. With the success of this test, the facility now holds claim to housing the world's most powerful laser by a wide margin. According to the release, it generated 100 times more energy than other lasers in operation.

"For the past 15 years, since NIF groundbreaking in 1997, the scientific community has regarded the 1.8 MJ milestone as a tremendous technical challenge," NIF Operations Manager Bruno Van Wonterghem said in a statement. "In 2003, we demonstrated this performance level on a single beam line, and in 2008 we repeated the demonstration on a single quad of four beams. To achieve this performance level with this kind of precision, quality and reliability on all 192 beams is unprecedented and very exciting."

The release states that the laser beam also exceeded the research team's expectation in terms of precision:

Such precision is vital because the energy distribution among the beams determines how symmetrical an implosion is obtained in capsules containing fusion fuel. Implosion symmetry is a critical factor in achieving the pressures and temperatures required for ignition. Moses said that NIF will pursue operations at even higher power and higher energy levels to achieve ignition.

Gizmodo reports the technical details of how the laser works:

It all starts with a single laser, which is split into 48 separate beams. The beams are then redirected, using mirrors, into amplifiers that have been previously pumped by a total of 7,680 Xenon flash lamps. After four bounces, the beams are further split into 192 rays through all the facility — which is the size of three football fields. As they travel through those endless tubes, the beams are amplified again at an exponential rate.

The result: from a tiny 1/billionth of a joule laser, the scientists at the National Ignition Facility obtain rays "a foot on their side" with a combined "2.03 million joules of ultraviolet energy," 1,000 times the energy of all the power plants in the United States combined, even while it's only for a fraction of a second.

Nature reports that while the laser maxed out at 2.03 megajoules and "diagnostic and other optics" at the center of the target chamber reduced the energy to 1.875. Previous tests had maxed out at 1.6 megajoules.

Nature states that NIF is working to achieve fusion ignition before the end of this year. Gizmodo explains how this process would create "a small star" that could be the source of clean energy:

The powerful lasers will compress a frozen hydrogen fuel cell, which will itself be enclosed in a gold-plated cylinder called the hohlraum. The hohlraum is located inside a 32.8-foot-diameter ignition chamber, and it will transform the lasers into extremely intense X-rays, compressing the hydrogen at one hundred billion atmospheres in just 1/1,000,000 of a second.

This will trigger a controlled nuclear fusion reaction that will create a small star, hopefully generating more power than the energy used to fire the laser and contain the intense heat inside the chamber.

NIF, located at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, is funded by the National Nuclear Security Administration.

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