This week California’s Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory announced that it fired up the world’s largest laser in a ‘dry run’ — a crucial first step towards the lab’s goal of creating nuclear fusion. During the process, 192 laser beams were converged in a 30-foot-in-diameter metal sphere where they delivered a 1 megajoule blast to a hydrogen-filled pellet. Fusion power is the holy grail of energy production — though it has never been achieved, it has the potential to create incredible amounts of energy and could replace the need for oil and gas reserves.
The laser is housed in the $3.5 billion National Ignition Facility, a 10 story building as wide as three football fields. The massive laser was used on a peppercorn-sized pellet of nuclear fuel, which was immediately crushed, causing it to emit a shower of neutrons — exactly what the scientists were hoping for. Only 75% of the laser’s power was used during this experiment.
“In my mind, to have accomplished this shot is an almost unfathomable scientific achievement,” Paul Drake, a physicist at the University of Michigan told Wired.com. “I’ve had a lifetime of experience of big science facilities, and find myself in awe of [the NIF team] having made this thing work this fast.”
The ultimate goal of the giant laser is to create a fusion reaction — the same process that is at work in the center of our sun. This week’s test was a promising first step, however, there are limits. The facility’s staff only have two years to reach their goal before the expensive technology is utilized for defense research. Hopefully the NIF’s scientific team will be able to do full-power tests in the near future, as the potential for unlimited energy is… well… limitless!