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500 Trillion Watt Laser Shot Sets Record, Brings Us Closer to Fusion Power

The National Ignition Facility at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory has passed an astounding milestone with a 500 trillion watt laser shot. This record breaking achievement not only confirms that the NIF can function at the levels to which it was originally designed, but brings the promise of clean fusion power just a little bit closer.

This record breaking laser firing went down on July 5 — a little late for high-energy celebrations, but whatever. During the experiment, all 192 beams of the laser system delivered 500 trillion watts ( 500Terrawatts) of peak power and 1.85 megajoules of energy to a two millimeter target. Just to give you some context, 500 TW is 1,000 times the amount of power being used by the entire United States at any given moment. This firing was 100 times more powerful than any other laser firing in existence.

Especially gratifying is the fact that NIF achieved such a high powered shot in the first place. Originally designed in the 1990s, the 500 TW firing proves that the facility can operate at the levels it was intended.

While playing with lasers is a lot of fun on its own, the NIF exists to reproduce the effects of fusion — where hydrogen fuses under incredible heat and pressure into helium and releases a boat load of energy in the process. There’s two reasons for this, one more optimistic than the other. The first, is to eventually produce a self-sustaining fusion reaction, which would provide cheap, clean power in great abundance. The second, is that the NIF is the only place where the internal workings of nuclear weapons can be modeled. In short, you can look into the heart of a hydrogen bomb.

This recent high-powered firing has excited the academic populace.  MIT senior research scientist and division head of high energy density physics Dr. Richard Petrasso is quoted in a NIF press release as saying:

“The 500 TW shot is an extraordinary accomplishment by the NIF Team, creating unprecedented conditions in the laboratory that hitherto only existed deep in stellar interiors, [...] For scientists across the nation and the world who, like ourselves, are actively pursuing fundamental science under extreme conditions and the goal of laboratory fusion ignition, this is a remarkable and exciting achievement.”

We’re learning to harness the stars, folks. Get excited.

(National Ignition Facitlity via Wired, image via NIF)

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