Skip to main content

National Ignition Facility: All Fired Up!

On Tuesday the Department of Energy declared that the National Ignition Facility was completed and ready to go. This gigantic science experiment will use dozens of high powered lasers to recreate the processes that power stars.

At the heart of the NIF is a small chunk of hydrogen inside a small pill sized gold casing. Aimed directly at this little target, are 192 of the world’s most powerful lasers. All together the lasers will produce an estimated 1.8 megajoules or energy, that's over 60 times more powerful than any laser system that's ever been assembled before.

When all 192 lasers are turned on it will heat up the pellet of hydrogen to over 800 million degrees Fahrenheit; hotter than the core of the sun. That much energy will begin fusing the hydrogen atoms together to form helium atoms. When hydrogen atoms fuse together, extra neutrons are converted to energy. When Einstein postulated that E=MC² he proved that matter can be turned directly into Energy. So the net amount of helium coming out will be lighter than the hydrogen going in, because of the mass converted into energy.

What is everyone is hoping is that the energy produced by the reaction is greater than the amount it took to fire the lasers. If it is, that's huge. It means that there is a net gain of energy coming from the mass of excess neutrons. The ultimate goal is to harness this excess energy for power generation.

All lasers have only just been tested for the first time two weeks ago, and experiments with actual hydrogen should be coming up within a year or so. Already the next generation of this kind of fusion generation facility is being planned. The NIF is really a proof of concept, exploring to see whether this kind of laser fusion could work and deliver the important energy gain. If all goes well HiPER (Short for High Power Laser Energy Research) to try the process on an industrial scale will begin construction sometime in the next decade.


Popular Posts

How 4,000 Physicists Gave a Vegas Casino its Worst Week Ever

What happens when several thousand distinguished physicists, researchers, and students descend on the nation’s gambling capital for a conference? The answer is "a bad week for the casino"—but you'd never guess why.

Ask a Physicist: Phone Flash Sharpie Shock!

Lexie and Xavier, from Orlando, FL want to know: "What's going on in this video ? Our science teacher claims that the pain comes from a small electrical shock, but we believe that this is due to the absorption of light. Please help us resolve this dispute!"

The Science of Ice Cream: Part One

Even though it's been a warm couple of months already, it's officially summer. A delicious, science-filled way to beat the heat? Making homemade ice cream. (We've since updated this article to include the science behind vegan ice cream. To learn more about ice cream science, check out The Science of Ice Cream, Redux ) Image Credit: St0rmz via Flickr Over at Physics@Home there's an easy recipe for homemade ice cream. But what kind of milk should you use to make ice cream? And do you really need to chill the ice cream base before making it? Why do ice cream recipes always call for salt on ice?