The National Ignition Facility (NIF) in Livermore, Calif., is experimenting in elusive fusion energy with a laser. A big laser. “The world’s most energetic laser,” Ed Moses, the NIF Director, recently told local NPR station KQED. And it’s already cost taxpayers $4 billion.
The laser is designed to fire at a tiny hydrogen capsule and cause a fusion reaction, the kind that powers the sun as well as our thermonuclear arsenal. Theoretically the intense energy released could be captured and provide a huge amount of clean energy. However, we’ve heard big promises from nuclear before.
The idea of generating enough electricity for the earth with just a few hydrogen isotopes has always been attractive. A fusion power plant could produce a huge amount electricity using just water and producing no nuclear waster, in theory. But critics say that NIF’s $4 billion could have been better spent on harnessing power from an existing fusion reactor. Christopher Paine, of the National Resource Defense Council, told KQED:
“It’s readily known to most people as the sun. Had the billions that have been expended on NIF…been directed toward perfecting our ability to convert solar energy into useful electricity the country would be much better off.”
Now, you might be wondering: “How big is the world’s most energetic laser?” Here are a series of gigantic, and tiny, numbers, to give you an idea:
- The laser has the power of a billion billion (yes, a billion billion) pocket laser pointers.
- When fired, the laser will discharge for a billionth of a second.
- The laser has the energy of 1000x the total U.S. electrical grid.
- The target will heat up to 100 million degrees (C) at 100 billion atmospheres of pressure.
Still, I don’t buy that research in one area is directly at the expense of research elsewhere. Now we just need to develop some sort of super-megalodon-shark with a head big enough to mount a house-sized laser canon on it. Bwa ha ha ha ha ha ha!