Harnessing a star's power for clean energy

Road Trip at Home: At the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory's National Ignition Facility, scientists hope to generate huge amounts of clean energy by 2020 with a massive laser fusion system.

NIF target chamer
A view inside the National Ignition Facility's target chamber, a space easily big enough for technicians to stand inside. It is hoped the NIF will eventually be a major source of carbon-free energy. Lawrence Livermore National Lab

LIVERMORE, Calif.--Think clean energy is a fantasy? What if the power of a star was applied to the problem?

That's the approach being explored at the National Ignition Facility , a huge-scale experiment in laser fusion based at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory here. Scientists are looking at NIF as a potential key to producing large amounts of carbon-free power.

It's not known if the system will ever bear the kind of fruit the scientists and administrators who run NIF would like. Still, the facility is a scientific wonder that can transform a single laser beam no wider than a human hair into 192 beams--each of which is 18 inches wide. Together, the beams are designed to produce 4 million joules, the amount of power that would produce 4 million watts of power in a single second.

The NIF was completed in early 2009 and eventually will be used by the U.S. Department of Energy, as well as technicians from national laboratories, fusion energy researchers, academics, and others. It is "the world's largest and highest-energy laser, [and] has the goal of achieving nuclear fusion and energy gain in the laboratory for the first time," according to the Lawrence Livermore National Lab, "in essence, creating a miniature star on Earth."

This is serious high technology. The NIF employs a series of amplifiers and mirrors known as switchyards to route and split the original hair's-width laser beam over a total distance of 1,500 meters. After being separated by pre-amplifiers into 48 beams, each beam is then split into four beams, and then all are injected into the 192 main laser amplifier beamlines, according to the NIF.

The hope is that NIF will be online as a power plant within 15 to 20 years. For now, the facility is a proof-of-concept system, albeit one comprising two 10-story buildings and more than $3 billion of investment. Eventually, the 192 laser beams reunite to focus on a target fuel pellet that is just millimeters in size, yet placed inside a target chamber that towers over the technicians who sometimes work inside.

And 192 laser beams of this magnitude create some serious heat. The theoretical maximum, according to LLNL retiree and docent Nick Williams, is 100 million degrees Celsius.

For now, because of the amount of power necessary to produce the beams, and the heat created, scientists are only able to fire the laser system once every two or three hours. Eventually, the idea would be to fire it many times a second.

And by 2030, it is hoped, the NIF will be helping produce commercial power and helping scientists and researchers better understand the nature of the universe. That, it would seem, would be a main benefit of producing what amounts to a small star, right here in the middle of Northern California.

On June 24, Geek Gestalt will kick off Road Trip 2010. After driving more than 18,000 miles in the Rocky Mountains, the Pacific Northwest, the Southwest and the Southeast over the last four years, I'll be looking for the best in technology, science, military, nature, aviation and more throughout the American northeast. If you have a suggestion for someplace to visit, drop me a line. In the meantime, you can follow my preparations for the project on Twitter @GreeterDan and @RoadTrip.

 

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