Science, News & Critical Thinking.

The power of Ra on Earth!

Imagine a future where you could distill and electrolize1 half a bathtub of crappy, waste water from your local harbour and create a potent nuclear fuel capable of powering your whole city. Sounds like the stuff of bad Keanu Reeves pseudo-sci-fi; but, our good friends south of the border in sunny California, are attempting to do just that!

Resembling a palates ball with robotic spider legs, partially encased in concrete at the center of this huge facility, the reaction chamber is a rather intimidating looking blue sphere surrounded by portholes, and large long rectangular boxes all converging into a single point somewhere deep within the bowels of this megalithic construction. It’s hard to believe that all of this is needed to convert a 2 millimeter sphere of beryllium and deuterium into helium and a butt-load of energy.

Sleeping in the giant belly of the Lawrence Livermore’s National Ignition Facility, is the world’s first over unity nuclear fusion laser reactor (ignition scheduled for 2010). It’s expected that the overall energy output from this reactor will be anywhere between 100 to 1000 times the energy that was needed to start the initial fusion reaction. That would be equivalent to the entire electrical output of the United States power grid combined, for a billionth of a second.

A brief history of laser fusion:

This monumental effort represents the 4th attempt to achieve a fusion reaction at the facility over the past 35 years. The first was codenamed “Janus” in 1974. With an output of only 10 joules and built to study inertial confinement fusion it was considered to be a very high power laser. Utilizing almost 100 pounds of Neodymium2 glass laser material, and filling a medium sized room, the dual infrared laser didn’t have enough power to create a fusion reaction.

Although fusion was not achieved in the Janus experiment, some serious number crunching led to the second attempt at laser fusion in 1977 codenamed “Shiva”. Named after the multi-armed Hindu goddess of destruction, this laser system, at the time, certainly lived up to it’s name. Utilizing 20 infrared lasers, this system was capable of generating 10.2 KiloJoules of energy (over 1000 times the energy of it’s predecessor). Fusion was not expected in this facility, it was built primarily as a proof of concept for a larger facility that was to follow.

In 1984 “Nova” came online with the expressed purpose of becoming the first fusion ignition system. With 20 beamlines and an output of 30 KiloJoules this system should have had the power to spark a fusion reaction. Ultimately it failed due to unforeseen magnetohydrodynamic instability, and minute inconsistencies in the laser outputs causing the fuel pellet to heat and implode unevenly. Although fusion was not achieved, the data collected during it’s operation between 1984 and 1999, proved to be both valuable and vital in the fields of high-density matter physics and nuclear weapons research.

After some major plans to upgrade the Nova systems, they were eventually rented to France and replaced by the “National Ignition Facility”. Now taking up the full space of both the Janus and Nova facilities, and incorporating 192 ultraviolet lasers and over 3,000 plates of Neodymium doped laser glass, this latest incarnation puts out an incredible 1.8 Million joules of energy making it almost 200, 000 times more powerful than the Janus experiment.

Now that’s one a-spicy meat-a-ball!


1In chemistry and manufacturing, electrolysis is a method of separating chemically bonded elements and compounds by passing an electric current through them. One important use of electrolysis of water is to produce hydrogen.

2Neodymium is also known as a “rare earth metal”, and has a wide array of uses from high power laser glass doping to super strong permanent magnets.

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