Miniaturizing the Sun
The Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory is preparing to start the first serious experiments on a possibly world-changing new technology: Fusion tests set at new Livermore facility.
Outside a concrete slab of a building 10 stories high that holds the most powerful array of lasers and high-precision optics ever assembled, the scientists, engineers and workers who created the massive structure at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory celebrated its dedication Friday.
The celebration in a heavily guarded section of the Lawrence Livermore lab marked the fact that research and tests are about to start at the new $3.5 billion National Ignition Facility, or NIF. It will be an unprecedented, years-long physics experiment, and the outcome is by no means certain.
It’s purpose is to focus the immense energy in an array of 120 laser beams onto a tiny glass target the size of a BB shot, which is filled with hydrogen. This is all done under immensely high pressure to make the target heat like the fiery interior of a star at a 180 million degrees Fahrenheit.
At that instant - theory says but experiments have yet to achieve - the hydrogen isotope atoms inside the target would fuse to become helium and release more energy in a trillionth of a second than it took to produce the blast in the first place.
To scientists that outcome is called “ignition,” a self-sustaining split-second of thermonuclear fusion that would - if successful - serve three vital functions:
— Enable the keepers of America’s nuclear warheads to make sure that, after decades in storage, those elderly weapons are still “safe, secure and reliable,” as their keepers hope.
— Enable astrophysicists and other scientists to study for the first time what kind of matter lies inside exploding stars, as well as in the deep high-pressure interior of Earth and its sister planets.
— Finally, if the coming years of experiments, which start next year, are successful, a truly limitless supply of clean electrical energy with no carbon waste would be created using the limitless hydrogen fuel in the world’s oceans.