Thursday, April 02, 2009

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.

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