National Ignition Facility Prepares to Fire


Photo via National Ignition Facility

Scientists at the Lawrence Livermore lab in California are preparing to launch an unprecedented series of experiments that may lead to the ability to harness the power of the sun and to infinite energy. But some warn the experiment may yield dangerous knowledge, like the ability to create a new generation of atomic weapons.

Lawrence Livermore's National Ignition Facility, which was officially dedicated on Friday, is a $3.5 billion dollar project that will unfold over many years. It's housed in a mammoth building that could easily fit three football fields.

According to the San Francisco Chronicle:

It's purpose is to focus the immense energy in an array of 120 laser beams onto a tiny glass target the size of a BB shot, which is filled with hydrogen. This is all done under immensely high pressure to make the target heat like the fiery interior of a star at a 180 million degrees Fahrenheit.

At that instant - theory says but experiments have yet to achieve - the hydrogen isotope atoms inside the target would fuse to become helium and release more energy in a trillionth of a second than it took to produce the blast in the first place.

To scientists that outcome is called "ignition," a self-sustaining split-second of thermonuclear fusion that would - if successful - serve three vital functions:

-- Enable the keepers of America's nuclear warheads to make sure that, after decades in storage, those elderly weapons are still "safe, secure and reliable," as their keepers hope.

-- Enable astrophysicists and other scientists to study for the first time what kind of matter lies inside exploding stars, as well as in the deep high-pressure interior of Earth and its sister planets.

-- Finally, if the coming years of experiments, which start next year, are successful, a truly limitless supply of clean electrical energy with no carbon waste would be created using the limitless hydrogen fuel in the world's oceans.

Is This Really About New Nukes?
According to the Department of Energy, the facility "is a critical part of NNSA’s mission of maintaining the safety and reliability of our nuclear deterrent without conducting nuclear testing."

The U.S. has not performed an underground nuclear test since 1992. The government, through its National Nuclear Security Administration, is concerned that our current stockpile of weapons exists beyond their original life cycle, meaning they may be inoperable. The tests at NIF will test assumptions about the old weapons and update computer models that haven't yet been tested. In other words, the government can test nukes without heading to the Nevada desert.

More on the National Ignition Facility
First Nuclear Fusion by 2011? Still No Silver Bullet for Environmental Problems
Nuclear Fusion Redux: How Realistic Are Scientists' Plans to Build Mini-Stars on Earth?

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