Scientists, officials unveil super laser

May 29, 2009 6:42:33 PM PDT
It's an event that was 12 years and $3.5 billion in the making. Friday, a host of politicians and scientists gathered to dedicate the world's largest laser, the National Ignition Facility, at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory

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Called the National Ignition Facility, or NIF for short, the giant laser system is designed to create conditions similar to those that exist only in the cores of stars and giant planets and on the inside of a nuclear weapon.

The idea is to explore fusion energy by reproducing the same chemical reactions that power the sun.

"It's exactly the kind of innovation that Americans have come to expect from California," said Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.

There are 192 lasers beams in all. Each of the giant tubes contains four, all aimed at a single target, about the size of a BB. The BB-sizes pellet is frozen hydrogen. When pelted with lasers, scientists expect the hydrogen atoms to fuse into helium and release tremendous energy.

"This possibility -- I can't say probability -- but possibility that fusion and fission, this, can be used to create carbon-free energy is just a unique, unique concept," said California Senator Dianne Feinstein.

But it has never been done. Experiments to achieve fusion ignition won't begin until 2010.

Critics claim the $3.5 billion official price tag for NIF is $1.5 billion too low, when one adds the cost of research and development. Beyond that, they contend NIF's main goal is to expand this country's nuclear weapons capabilities.

"My group is very supportive of genuine alternative, non-polluting renewable energy technologies," said Marylia Kelley of Tri-Valley Cares. "The National Ignition Facility is not, and never will be, that type of technology."

Nonetheless, NIF scientists remain confident the stadium-sized machine will eventually deliver on its promise of a new energy frontier.

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