Using star power for a clean-energy future (photos)
Model of target chamber
Deep inside the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in Livermore, Calif., sits the National Ignition Facility (NIF). The giant system sends 192 laser beams 1,500 meters from a master oscillator to a target chamber where the 192 beams are focused on a tiny fuel pellet. The idea? To demonstrate that laser fusion is possible--and a potential future source of clean energy.
In just 20 billionths of a second, the NIF's lasers deliver a payload of 500 trillion watts of power, more than 500 times the total amount of power created on the global power grid in the same amount of time.
This is a model of the target chamber that holds the actual fuel pellet target. The giant NIF system funnels the 192 laser beams into the chamber using a complex infrastructure of power amplifiers, mirrors, and more.
A schematic for the National Ignition Facility at the Lawrence Livermore National Lab. Each beam originates at a master oscillator and is amplified as it's sent on a back-and-forth journey through a pre-amplifier module, a power amplifier, a main amplifier, and then through the power amplifier again. The beam then runs through a switchyard and finally hits the target chamber.
A look straight down a laser bay at the National Ignition Facility. In just 5 millionths of a second, the system transforms one-billionth of a joule of laser beam energy to 4 million joules, an increase of a factor of more than 1 quadrillion. (According to Wikipedia, a joule is defined as the work required to continuously produce 1 watt of power for one second.)
As this sticker on a door in the NIF suggests, the system transforms a laser beam with a billionth of a joule of energy into 192 beams with a total of 4 million joules, more than a quadrillion times the original energy.
Scientists at the NIF cut a potassium dihydrogen phosphate (KDP) crystal like this into a series of 40-centimeter-square plates. The plates become part of a system of more than 600 large aperture crystal components used for optical switches and frequency converters that help boost the original single laser beam to 192 beamlines.
The Lawrence Livermore National Lab came up with a quick-growth process in which it grows KDP crystals like this one in about two months.
An exterior look at the National Ignition Facility at the Lawrence Livermore National Lab. Scientists at the facility are attempting to demonstrate that laser fusion is possible, and hope the process can someday be used to generate clean energy.
Placed at the center of the target chamber is one of these tiny fuel pellets, which is imploded with laser fusion. The idea is to show that amplifying a low-power laser beam can create huge amounts of carbon-free energy.
According to the NIF, though single lasers end up as 192 beams, each laser shot inside the National Ignition Facility originates from a single laser oscillator like this. It is used to generate one low-power pulse, which is then split and amplified to approximately a nanojoule. It is then transported via fiber optic cables to a series of 48 pre-amplifier modules. Then, the 48 beams are again split, this time four ways on their way to being injected into the 192 main beamlines.
Here is the inside of the Center for Accelerator Mass Spectrometry at the Lawrence Livermore National Lab. CAMS, as it's known, employs giant magnets to filter out elements to determine how much Carbon-14 a substance contains, a measurement that can help scientists determine things like its age.
This analyzing magnet is intended for bending positive ion beams, a process that separates the beams' different carbon masses. Carbon-14 shoots down the beam line's center to a second filtering magnet and eventually reaches the Carbon-14 detector.