The power needed to create controlled fusion is incredible, so scientists have developed an incredible laser array capable of igniting a miniature star on Earth. The fusion laser system is so powerful that its 411 trillion watts of peak power has an output greater than 1,000 times the power consumption of the entire U.S. at any point in time.
Laser implosion fusion reactors are considered to be the most viable design for the achievement of the continuous fusion needed to power the reactors of the future.
Tokamak, an idea that’s come and gone?
A competing fusion design, the tokamak (A Russian acronym meaning “toroidal magnetic fusion chamber”), is a doughnut-shaped vessel that contains superheated nuclear plasma contained within a powerful magnetic field.
Although tokamaks have achieved brief fusion reactions, containing the plasma and field has proved to be more difficult than igniting the thermonuclear fusion process itself.
After more than 40 years of trial and error—and billions of research dollars spent—many physicists and nuclear engineers are turning towards laser implosion as a more attainable and reliable technology. The laser implosion method of achieving fusion was first developed back in the 1970s.
Creating a star
During March 2012, the National Ignition Facility (NIF) operated by Lawrence Livermore National Security for the Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration, located in Livermore, California simultaneously fired 192 ultraviolet laser beams in a shaped-pulse of raw energy at the target chamber.
It’s an energy level that can ignite fusion.
“This event marks a key milestone in the National Ignition Campaign’s drive toward fusion ignition,” said NIF Director Edward Moses in a press release. “While there have been many demonstrations of similar equivalent energy performance on individual beams or quads during the completion of the NIF project, this is the first time the full complement of 192 beams has operated at this energy. This is very exciting, like breaking the sound barrier.”
The current push towards clean energy source will experience a quantum leap once viable fusion reaction is achieved. The NIF says it will attempt fusion ignition by 2014.
Nuclear fusion was first achieved in the 1950s with the detonation of the world’s first hydrogen bomb. But that release of energy is uncontrolled and all the power is uncontained. A controlled fusion reaction, however, will create the power of hydrogen bombs in a laboratory setting and direct that power towards purposes other than mass destruction.
Directing the massive energy output at one tiny spot in a specially built chamber, the lasers pump out enough energy in 23 billionths of a second to briefly power the entire U.S. a thousandfold.
All that energy will be used to fuse pellets of tritium and deuterium, an atomic isotope of hydrogen. The laser array, shaped to compress in a carefully balanced sphere, will compress the pellets to several hundredths of their size causing the atoms to fuse.
“Our facility’s ability to demonstrate this level of precision performance as part of routine operations is a testament to the efforts of multiple teams supporting laser operations, target chamber operations, transport and handling and optics refurbishment,” Moses said.
Moon mining and fusion power
In future decades, nuclear engineers see the fuel source of laser fusion reactors switching from tritium and deuterium to the Helium-3 (He-3). That element, while rare on Earth, is abundant on the Moon and a future prize that Russia and China have set their eyes upon. He-3, also known as tralphium, has rich deposits on the Moon and future mining operations on the lunar surface may create a trillion dollar industry.
The dream of of low-cost, limitless energy has been the dream of nuclear engineers for sixty years.
Now it’s almost within their grasp.