Friday, 23 March 2012

 If you blinked, you missed it. Last week, Lawrence Livermore’s National Ignition Facility (NIF), home to the world’s most energetic laser, fired its 192 laser beams for 23 billionths of a second. The result was a staggering/record-setting 1.875 megajoules (MJ) of ultraviolet laser light, altogether blasted into the facility’s target chamber center.
Power generated in that short amount of time: 411 trillion watts of power. To put this into perspective, that much power is 1,000 times more than the entire United States of America consumes during any given moment.
“This event marks a key milestone in the National Ignition Campaign’s drive toward fusion ignition,” said NIF Director Edward Moses. “While there have been many demonstrations of similar equivalent energy performance on individual beams or quads during the completion of the NIF project, this is the first time the full complement of 192 beams has operated at this sound barrier.”
About the blast
The ultraviolet energy produced after conversion from the original infrared laser pulse to the final ultraviolet light was actually 2.03 MJ, however, this was before the beam passed through diagnostic instruments and other optics on its way to the target chamber (hence the drop in recorded megajoules).
This makes the NIF the world’s first 2-MJ ultraviolet laser. The blast recorded on March 15 successfully generated close to 100 times more energy than any other laser in operation.
How’d they generate that much energy?
As the laser beams move through a series of amplifiers, their energy continually increases. From beginning to end, the beams’ total energy grows from one-billionth of a joule to a potential high of four million joules. According to the NIF, that’s a factor of more than a quadrillion.
As if this isn’t already enough of a wow-factor, it’s all happening in about five millionths of a second.
No, they’re not planning on taking over the world with this laser
The goal for the NIF is to use the facility to harness the same energy reaction that occurs within the sun (fusion or, in layman’s terms, the process of splitting atoms to capture released energy).
More specifically, the team is using beams of light to converge on pellets of hydrogen isotopes to create a similar, though more controlled, micro-explosion to that which occurs with the sun; that is, the ongoing fission process where hydrogen and helium nuclei are continually fusing and releasing enormous amounts of energy.
Not only was the blast incredibly powerful, it was also unbelievably accurate
Besides the fact that this is the highest recorded energy threshold ever, the blast was also one of the facility’s most precise ever: the energy it produced was within 1.3% of its goal.
This level of precision is of utmost importance because energy distribution among the beams is what ultimately determines how symmetrical an implosion can be obtained in capsules that contain fusion fuel. Researchers must shoot for precise implosion symmetry because it is a direct factor in achieving the pressures and temperatures necessary for ignition.
Outlook
The NIF will continue to pursue operations at even higher power and higher energy levels to achieve ignition. For those wondering what it costs to run a project like this, you’ll take heart in knowing that, since the laser is on for only a fraction of a second, it costs very little to operate — somewhere between $5 and $20 per blast.
The NIF managers hope that, by the end of 2012, the facility will have successfully reached a break-even point where the energy released is equal to — if not greater than — the energy going into the blast

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