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Record-breaking laser pulse boosts fusion power hopes

One giant step towards 'creating a miniature star on Earth'

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The world's most powerful laser has fired a record-breaking pulse that exceeded even its own design goals.

For 23 billionths of a second, the 192 ultraviolet lasers in the National Ignition Facility generated the equivalent of 411 trillion watts of peak power, which the NIF described as being 1,000 times more energy than the entire US uses "at any instant in time".

The shaped laser pulse delivered a staggering 1.875 million joules of energy into the NIF's facility's target chamber center – and that was after the pulse traveled through diagnostic instruments and other optics on its journey to the target.

The total energy created when the pulse was generated, the laser boffins say, was calculated to be 2.03 million joules, making the NIF the world's first 2MJ ultraviolet laser – about 100 times more powerful than any other laser in existence.

The Control Room staff at the National Ignition Facility

The Control Room at the National Ignition Facility, where one man has the finest title in all of boffinry

The NIF's goal is simple to explain but maddeningly complex and difficult to accomplish: to generate enough power to achieve fusion ignition and, therefore, produce energy gain in a laboratory setting. To do this, it explains, its goal is to focus "the intense energy of 192 giant laser beams on a BB-sized target filled with hydrogen fuel, fusing the hydrogen atoms' nuclei and releasing many times more energy than it took to initiate the fusion reaction."

"This event marks a key milestone in the National Ignition Campaign's drive toward fusion ignition," said NIF Director Edward Moses in a statement. "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."

That was Moses the scientist speaking. Moses the man was more direct. "This is very exciting," he said, "like breaking the sound barrier."

The NIF was first fired up in March 2009, at which time it hit 1MJ, with an original design goal of achieving 1.8MJ. Over the past three years, the team has increased its output by about one kilojoule each day, and has refined the massive instrument's precision, which is critical to providing the "implosion symmetry" needed to achieve the temperatures and pressures needed to initiate a fusion reaction.

"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.

This breakthrough takes the NIF one giant step closer to its goal of harnessing the power that fires up the Sun, and, in their words, "in essence, creating a miniature star on Earth." ®

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