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Monday, March 30, 2009

World's largest laser now ready for use

By H. JOSEF HEBERT

WASHINGTON (AP) — After more than a decade of work and $3.5 billion, engineers have completed the world's most powerful laser, capable of simulating the energy force of a hydrogen bomb and the sun itself.

The Energy Department will announce Tuesday that it has officially certified the National Ignition Facility at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, clearing the way for a series of experiments over the next year. Scientists hope the experiments eventually will mimic the heat and pressure found at the center of the sun.

The facility, the size of a football field, consists of 192 separate laser beams, each traveling 1,000 feet in a one-thousandth of a second to converge simultaneously on a target the size of a pencil eraser.

While the NIF laser is expected to be used for a wide range of high-energy and high-density physics experiments, its primary purpose is to help government physicists ensure the reliability of the nation's nuclear weapons as they become older.

The laser "will be a cornerstone" of the weapons stewardship program "ensuring the continuing reliability of the U.S. nuclear stockpile without underground nuclear testing," Thomas D'Agostino, head of the National Nuclear Security Administration, said in an interview Monday.

The NNSA, a semi-independent arm of the Energy Department, oversees nuclear weapons programs.

The NIF laser was first proposed in the early 1990s, when the project's cost was put at $700 million. Construction began in 1997. Its early years were marked by setbacks including trouble — eventually overcome — in keeping its critical optics perfectly clean.

NIF now is expected to ramp up power gradually in a series of experiments over the next year, culminating at a power level in 2010 to achieve what scientists call "fusion ignition" — enough heat and pressure to fuse hydrogen atoms in a tiny cylindrical "target" so that more energy is released than is generated by the laser beams themselves.

That is what happens when a hydrogen bomb explodes and what takes place at the center of the sun. It's also what scientists would one day like to achieve on a continuing basis to produce a clean, safe form of energy by fusing atoms instead of splitting them.

Edward Moses, director of the NIF project who has led its development since 1999, said he's ever more confident that NIF will be able to achieve fusion ignition.

"It's now operational," said Moses in a telephone interview. "The lasers are there. The targets are there and we've proven the optics. But now the proof is in the shooting. We've got to put all this together and shoot the targets. It's the first time anyone has ever done experiments at this scale."

NIF's 192 laser beams produce 60 to 70 times more energy than a 60-beam system at the University of Rochester, which is the second most powerful laser, said Moses.

In addition to helping diagnose the functioning of nuclear warheads, the NIF laser is expected to be use in astrophysics, allowing scientists to mimic conditions inside planets and new solar systems.

Moses said he sees NIF as key in the move toward developing a fusion energy source.

"What we want to show is scientific proof of the principle of fusion energy," said Moses, predicting some experiments for a short time may produce 50 to 100 times more energy than the lasers themselves generate.
On the Net:

* NIF Project at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory: Project NIF

9 comments:

Anonymous said...

Help me on this - something about laser beams reflecting in plasma is not a good thing. I'm sure this issue has been addressed.

Anonymous said...

After more than a decade of work and $3.5 billion . . .

Talk about creative accounting!

Anonymous said...

Funny how none of the news releases I've read mention tritium as the hydrogen isotope in the targets, nor resulting neutron radiation and activation of the target chamber and surrounding equipment. Wouldn't want to dampen the enthusiasm by mentioning radioactive isotopes being blown around during incomplete/failed fusion experiments or radiation and radioactive waste production. Sure, systems in NIF are designed to "control" these potential hazards, but to not mention these issues seems disingenuous at best and downright dishonest at worst. Of course, that's what can be expected from LLNL/LLNS management and their propagandists in the PAO these days. "It's clean energy, made from sea water!"

Anonymous said...

If you want to see the target chamber for the last time you better do it when you have the chance because in less then two years you will never enter that room again without getting dosed. I sure as heck am not going near it after they do their first full up tritium shot. I wonder if they'll have to pay all their people special pay for getting dosed when doing maintenance.

Anonymous said...

Sorry for the naive question, but will the radiation be well enough contained to not pose a health threat to others working elsewhere at LLNL?

Anonymous said...

April 1, 2009 11:00 PM

I am not close enough to the project to answer with authority but I am sure all eventualities have been taken into account just like the tritium and plutonium facilities. Both have released radionuclides into the environment over the years. I would stay upwind of the NIF if at all possible.

Anonymous said...

I think the communities downwind from this reactor on most days would be Tracy, Modesto, Manteca, and Lathop. Not a good time to be selling either.

Anonymous said...

Re. comment 1, they've already (successfully) done laser-plasma interaction testing, so that's not supposed to be a problem.

Re. other comments, heavy heavy heavy target chamber shielding should preclude radiation leakage THROUGH the chamber walls. There IS a tritium evacuation vent visible from the top of the building though, just in case.

Ed doesn't like to talk about that

Anonymous said...

I hear the operating cost of a shot on NIF is $200K an hour. Can anyone verify that cost. If this be the case I wonder what will happen when one of the supporting systems goes down for parts and that part is 12 weeks out. Sheeet is going to hit the fan but there will be nothing they can do about it.

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