The National Ignition Facility (NIF) at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory just fired up the world’s largest laser to shoot a record-breaking 2.03 megajoule beam of light at a tiny frozen fuel pellet. The event marks a milestone in the continuing effort to create fusion power, which is hailed as the holy grail of unlimited clean energy.
While the event may sound very impressive, for us non-scientific types it is hard to understand what exactly this means – can the laser pass through walls? Is it the first step in creating ray guns? “It’s a remarkable demonstration of the laser from the standpoint of its energy, its precision, its power, and its availability,” says Ed Moses, NIF director. The researchers fired a 1.875 megajoule shot, which was magnified to 2.03 megajoules after passing through the laser chamber’s final focusing lens. This makes the experiment responsible for firing the world’s first 2 megajoule ultraviolet laser.
Until now, the team’s experiments have maxed out at 1.6 megajoules, however Moses believes that by adding more energy to the laser, they will get closer to achieving their target. However some are less sure – Speaking to Nature, Riccardo Betti, director of the Fusion Science Center at the University of Rochester in New York, said that while the experiment represents a “great performance” from the laser, it is doubtful that the extra energy will improve the implosion of the carefully designed targets.“The laser has been pretty much the star of the campaign — more so than the targets,” he says.
The NIF team is aiming to achieve ignition before the end of the fiscal year, when their two-year ignition campaign ends. The NIF experiment has been supported by the US Nuclear Weapons Complex and the US Department of Energy, which is also researching creating fusion energy with magnets rather than lasers.
Due to a childhood filled with light shows, rock concerts and Star Wars, I don’t think I’m alone in thinking lasers are cool. However the team at the National Ignition Facility have put a little bit of science fact into my dreams of science fiction.