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Laser Could Help Ease Global Energy Crisis

April 28, 2010

A giant laser — the size of three football fields — is being used by scientists at a government lab in California to possibly set off a nuclear reaction so intense that it will make a star bloom on the surface of the Earth, according to a recent CNN report.

The scientists at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory want to create a sun on the ground that seems like a science fiction fantasy straight from Hollywood. But the experiment is for real, and the National Ignition Facility will be tested for the first time sometime this summer.

If the experiment proves successful, scientists hope the mini-star created could solve the global energy crisis by harnessing its own energy.

The experiment doesn’t come without doubt, though. Nuclear fusion, what the scientists are hoping to produce, has been a dream for scientists for nearly 50 years. It has been labeled a miracle power source, but results are few and far between.

Also, the U.S. Government Accountability Office released an audit on the lab’s work this month, citing delays and mismanagement will likely keep scientists from reaching the goal to create fusion this year.

But researchers say it’s not a matter of if but when their experiment will be proved successful. “We have a very high confidence that we will be able to ignite the target within the next two years,” thus proving that controlled fusion is possible, Bruno Van Wonterghem, a manager of the project, told CNN.

The laser, built inside a huge building, really looks nothing like a laser most people think of when they do think of lasers. This one is just a huge factory full of tubes. The beam of light produced by the machine, which will travel back and forth over the distance of a mile, will charge up as it goes.

The laser will then be split into 192 beams and aimed all at once at a single point the size of a pea. The target will have a coating of deuterium and tritium, two reactive isotopes of hydrogen that can be extracted from sea water. The atoms are surrounded with a gold capsule that’s smaller than a thimble.

If the process goes how scientists are expecting it to go, the reaction will be hotter than the center of the sun — more than 180 million degrees Fahrenheit — and will exert more pressure than 100 billion atmospheres. The process should smash the isotopes together with so much force and heat that their nuclei will fuse, sending off energy and neutrons, creating a tiny star.

The fusion reaction that would be generated from the process is the same recipe that fuels our sun and other stars. “It’s the most fundamental energy source in nature,” Van Wonterghem told CNN.

Workers at the lab insist the project is not dangerous. They say the fusion will be controlled, rather than explosive like that of nuclear weapons, which includes fusion reaction.

Lynda Seaver, spokeswoman for the project, assured the experiment will pose no dangers to the public. “The [worst possible] mishap is, it doesn’t work,” she said.

The reaction will emit radioactive neutrons, but in order to keep the neutrons from escaping, the lab will surround the reaction chamber with concrete walls more than 6.5 feet thick.

Though the reaction being produced will far “exceed the conditions at the center of the sun,” Van Wonterghem said, the controlled fusion is expected to be very small and short-lived.

Researchers expect the star to be cooked up will die 200 trillionths of a second after its created, Van Wonterghem added.

The experiment will be seen as a method in proving that powerful beams of light can produce controlled fusion reaction, Seaver said. Even with adequate funding, however, it will take another 20 years to develop a continuous fusion reaction that could be used to heat water, create steam power, and run generators, she added.

Currently the project is over budget and behind schedule, according to government reports.

Since the experiment was first talked about in 2005, the project has spent 25 percent more than its initial $1.6 billion budget, according to the April Government Accountability Office report. And, in those recent years, the project has fallen off schedule and is expected to not be completed until sometime at the end of 2012.

Seaver told CNN that the report doesn’t portray the lab’s work correctly. “NIF has held all its milestones. It’s held to its budget. The experiments are going just fine at NIF,” she said. “They’re going the way we thought they would.”

The laser facility has been under construction since 1997, but the technology needed for the laser has been in development for nearly half a century, she said.

The Livermore lab said it could get its fuel — the two isotopes of hydrogen — from seawater.

The process for extracting large amounts of the isotopes from water has not been perfected as of yet, but the lab says the supply is nearly limitless.

“One gallon of seawater would provide the equivalent energy of 300 gallons of gasoline; fuel from 50 cups of water contains the energy equivalent of two tons of coal,” the website for the project says.

Critics of the research say the process is too expensive and too theoretical.

The world needs to look at existing ideas for climate change rather than looking for a miracle cure that will prove to be too expensive for commercial energy production anyway, said Thomas B. Cochran, a senior scientist and nuclear physicist at the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group.

“If you want to do [research and development] to alleviate climate change, you have to have technologies that can be brought online soon,” he said. “We don’t have much time to turn this around.”

Even if the project proves successful, the lab is still a long way from commercializing the idea. “It’s not going to be competitive,” he said. “It’s crazy to go down that road. It’s kind of fun and interesting — graduate student projects designing these concepts. But they waste a lot of money in thinking [nuclear fusion] is going to contribute to society.”

Van Wonterghem remains hopeful for an energy miracle from fusion and has invested his entire career in the idea. Seaver says what is happening in the lab is historic.

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