Livermore, CA – A fusion ignition facility which uses the power of lasers to turn tiny hydrogen pellets into thermonuclear energy is to open in California today.
The device is expected to be the first to create more energy than it uses, releasing ten to 100 times more energy than the amount of laser energy required to initiate the fusion reaction.
It is hoped that the $3.5 billion National Ignition Facility (NIF) will pave the way for commercial laser fusion power stations – potentially providing clean, almost limitless energy.
The NIF’s laser – the most powerful in the world – will aim 192 beams of light at an area half a millimeter square in a burst lasting five billionths of a second. The beams produce a shock wave that slams into a tiny pellet of frozen hydrogen. This generates a temperature of tens of millions degrees C and a pressure of many billions of atmospheres, replicating the conditions found within a star. The hydrogen atoms fuse, producing helium and energy.
Image: All of the energy of NIF’s 192 beams is directed inside a gold cylinder called a hohlraum, which is about the size of a dime. A tiny capsule inside the hohlraum contains atoms of deuterium (hydrogen with one neutron) and tritium (hydrogen with two neutrons) that fuel the ignition process.
Credit is given to Lawrence Livermore National Security, LLC, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, and the Department of Energy under whose auspices this work was performed.
The facility will ramp up gradually to full power over the next year. There are hurdles: the hydrogen pellets cost around $40,000 each to produce because of the need to make them perfectly spherical. In addition, the laser can currently only fire half a dozen times each day, with the pellets requiring careful placement each time.
The scientists hope to increase the rate to ten times a second by firing the hydrogen pellets into the fusion chamber.
The NIF also has a major security application for the US, as it will be the first facility to be able to perform controlled experimental studies of thermonuclear burn.