The Knights Who Say NIF

May 24, 2005 at 1:36 am (science)

Scientists are building the world’s biggest laser beam

LIVERMORE, California (AP) — Ed Moses talks of the “grand
challenge” that has consumed him for the past five years, comparing it
to trying to hit the strike zone with a baseball from 350 miles (563
kilometers) away or tossing a dime into a parking meter from 40 miles
(64 kilometers) away.

Is that the same Ed Moses who was the king of the 400 meters?

“That’s the precision we have to have,” says Moses, the
director of a high-energy physics adventure to produce the world’s most
powerful laser — one that scientists hope will create in a laboratory
the type of energy found at the center of the sun.
The trip will take one-thousandth of a second during which the light’s
energy is amplified many billions of times to create a brief laser
pulse 1,000 times the electric generating power of the United States.

The goal is to create unimaginable heat — 180 million degrees
Fahrenheit (82 million Celsius) — and intense pressure from all
directions on a BB-size hydrogen fuel pellet, compressing it to
one-thirtieth of its size.

The result, the scientists hope, will be a fusing of atoms so that more
energy is released than is generated by the laser beams, something
scientists call fusion ignition. It is what happens when a hydrogen
bomb explodes.

It will provide a platform for many experiments in high-energy and
high-density physics, from learning more about the planets and stars to
advancing the elusive hunt for fusion energy to generate electric
power, Moses says.

“You have to think of this like the Hubble,” he says, referring to the
space telescope. “It’s a place where you will see things and do things
that you couldn’t do anywhere else.”

But here’s the best part:

“We never intended to spend $5 billion to $6 billion to
build a laser facility for … civilian research,” Sen. Pete Domenici,
R-New Mexico, chairman of the Senate subcommittee that funds the NIF
program, lectured an Energy Department scientist last year when he
learned fusion ignition experiments might be
postponed.

Well put, Senator. Who needs nuclear fusion when we have ANWR?

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