Livermore Lab on verge of energy breakthrough

May 28, 2009 7:42:02 PM PDT
Friday, scientists at the Lawrence Livermore Lab will officially dedicate the world's most powerful laser. It is part of a project designed to take the world beyond nuclear energy. But if it succeeds, the system could do more than create energy in a new way. It might actually rid the world of leftover nuclear waste in the process.

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Workers at Lawrence Livermore Lab are putting the finishing touches on the world's most powerful laser system known as NIF (National Ignition Facility). In about 18 months, physicists will conduct a highly-publicized test to create fusion energy from water.

"Yes we will. We have demonstrated that we can break every barrier," said NIF project manager Bruno Van Wonterghem. "We have broken the energetics barrier for the largest laser in the world. This is not only the highest energy laser, it is also the most precision laser in the world."

"And believe it or not, this is where we take the hydrogen in water and using Einstein's equation, turn mass into energy," explained NIF director Ed Moses.

The NIF team will fire nearly 200 individual laser beams generated by an accelerator the size of a football field. The beams converge on a single target chamber containing a capsule of hydrogen. The hope is to compress it, and creating a subatomic reaction called fusion, ultimately igniting a controlled version of the same thermo-nuclear combustion that takes place on the sun.

"We're talking about igniting at the nuclear level and burning matter and turning it into energy," said Moses. "It's a very new thing. When we do this, it will change the way people think about their future."

The NIF project has generated intense interest worldwide for more than a decade, with the potential promise of creating unlimited energy. If this test works, there would be an extraordinary side benefit as well -- a power plant that would literally get rid of nuclear waste.

A mock-up, already on the drawing board at Livermore, is nicknamed "life" or Laser Inertial Fusion Engine. It would take advantage of a quirk in the fusion process. As hydrogen is compressed, it releases particles called neutrons.

"That is a very interesting particle because it can penetrate the nucleus of another atom. So now we could take nuclear waste and use those neutrons to bust it up, get energy and remove the waste," said Moses.

To literally re-burn nuclear waste, engineers would create a separate compartment around the fusion chamber. The escaping neutrons would pass through the radioactive waste, igniting it. The result -- tons of material now piling up at nuclear storage sites around the country could potentially be burned a second time, taking most of the radioactivity out of it in the process.

"You think about Yucca Mountain, which people worry about and the president has decided not to use anymore. That waste is still around the country. What are we going to do with it?" said Moses. "We could use a life engine to burn that up, too, and get more energy out."

But they admit, the chances of a life engine plant becoming reality ultimately depends on one of the biggest experiments of our time, and whether hundreds of lasers can trigger fusion, creating energy from water.

Energy Secretary Steven Chiu will tour the National Ignition Facility on Friday for a dedication ceremony marking the completion of construction.

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