Friendly ‘Death Star’ Laser to Recreate Sun’s Power
The interior of the National Ignition Facility's target chamber, where researchers plan to use 192 giant lasers to ignite a pinpoint fusion reaction. The service module carrying technicians can be seen on the left. The target positioner, which holds the target fuel capsule, is on the right.
Credit: LLNL/DOE

Lasers have usually represented weapons of mass destruction in movies such as "Star Wars," but a newly completed facility has begun harnessing lasers to create a fusion reaction rivaling the power of a miniature sun.

The National Ignition Facility has already test-fired all 192 giant lasers at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California as part of this effort. The lasers will eventually focus their power on compressing and heating a single, pea-sized fuel capsule to more than 180 million degrees Fahrenheit in order to trigger thermonuclear fusion.

"One of the major activities of the NIF is to explore the basics of fusion energy, building a miniature sun on Earth that could supply limitless, safe and carbon-free energy," said Ed Moses, National Ignition Facility (NIF) program director.

Unlike nuclear fission reactions that split apart atoms inside existing power plants, fusion reactions create energy from atoms fusing together to form heavier atoms. The reaction normally only takes place within intensely hot environments, such as the heart of a star, but researchers have attempted to recreate fusion in a way that would produce more energy than it takes to start the reaction.

Just 150 micrograms of deuterium and tritium, or less than one-millionth of a pound, can serve as the fuel for the NIF experiment. But containing the high-temperature plasma from a fusion reaction represents a special challenge — temperatures of 180 million degrees F and up would melt any known substance, apparently including the metallic arms of Spiderman villain 'Doc Ock' in his fictional fusion experiment from "Spiderman 2."

The NIF's laser-based approach uses an approach known as inertial confinement fusion (ICF), which takes advantage of Newton's Third Law about every reaction having an equal and opposite reaction.

The rapid, intense heating from the lasers makes the outer layer of the tiny fuel capsule explode outward, and that compresses the remaining fuel inward and helps trigger the fusion reaction. Fusion burn consumes the cooler, outer regions of the capsule faster than the capsule can expand, which contains the resulting reaction.

This stands in contrast to previous approaches that have relied on magnetic fields to contain the plasma from fusion reactions, such as Europe's Joint European Torus project, although both could work.

"ICF is analogous to an internal combustion engine where micro-explosions (as in a car engine cylinder) are continuously occurring to produce energy," Moses told "Magnetic fusion is more like a turbine that is continuously burning fuel to produce energy."

Serious ignition testing scheduled for 2010 would focus 500 trillion watts of power on the pea-sized capsule containing deuterium and tritium fuel. NIF has already produced 25 times more energy than any other existing laser system, and also became the first fusion laser facility to break the megajoule barrier and create enough energy to power 10,000 100-watt light bulbs for a second.

"We plan to begin the first experimental shots of the ignition campaign in May," Moses said.