“Creating a miniature star on Earth” is the goal of the National Ignition Facility (NIF), home to the world’s largest and highest-energy laser in Livermore, California. On September 29th, 2010, the NIF completed its first integrated ignition experiment, where it focused its 192 lasers on a small cylinder housing a tiny frozen capsule containing hydrogen fuel, briefly bombarding it with 1 megajoule of laser energy. The experiment was the latest in a series of tests leading to a hoped-for “ignition”, where the nuclei of the atoms of the fuel inside the target capsule are made to fuse together releasing tremendous energy — potentially more energy than was put in to start the initial reaction, becoming a valuable power source.
The NIF and the LHC are this generation’s Apollo program.
Not content with movie stars, California wants its own actual stellar object. The LIFE project at the NIF (National Ignition Facility) at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory aims to create a tiny star with intense laser power. How intense? The facility increases the power of the laser beam a quadrillion times before it reaches its target:
The National Ignition Facility, located at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, is the world’s largest laser system… 192 huge laser beams in a massive building, all focused down at the last moment at a 2 millimeter ball containing frozen hydrogen gas. The goal is to achieve fusion… getting more energy out than was used to create it. It’s never been done before under controlled conditions, just in nuclear weapons and in stars. We expect to do it within the next 2-3 years. The purpose is threefold: to create an almost limitless supply of safe, carbon-free, proliferation-free electricity; examine new regimes of astrophysics as well as basic science; and study the inner-workings of the U.S. stockpile of nuclear weapons to ensure they remain safe, secure and reliable without the need for underground testing.
Wow. The fusion will produce high-energy neutrons, which will bombard a material capable of converting their energy into heat, which in turn will make steam and eventually electricity. But it gets even better:
In addition, the LIFE engine design can be “charged” with fission fuel. The resulting fission reactions will produce additional energy that can be harvested for electricity production. Moreover, by using depleted uranium or spent nuclear fuel from existing nuclear power plants in the blanket, a LIFE engine will be capable of burning the by-products of the current nuclear fuel cycle. Because the fusion neutrons are produced independently of the fission process, the fission fuel could be used without reprocessing. In this way, LIFE may be able to consume nuclear waste as fuel, mitigate against further nuclear proliferation, and provide long-term sustainability of carbon-free energy. A LIFE engine, via pure fusion or through the combination of fusion and fission, will generate the steady heat required to drive turbines for generating from 1,000 to 2,500 MW of safe, environmentally attractive electric power 24 hours a day for decades.