This image shows the internal structure of INF’s preamplifier support. (Image Credit: Damien Jemison/LLNL)


Scientists at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in Northern California used a unique nuclear fusion creation technique at the National Ignition Facility to yield over 10 quadrillion watts of power, a world record. The team achieved this feat by focusing intense light beams from 192 giant lasers at a tiny pea-sized hydrogen pellet, releasing 1.3 megajoules of energy in 100 trillionths of a second.


That number is approximately 70% of the energy the pellet absorbed from the lasers. In the future, scientists hope to reach the pellet’s ignition point so that it releases 100% of the power it absorbs. Additionally, the scientists hope to use the results to expand nuclear fusion weapons research and pave the way toward new nuclear fusion energy harvesting techniques.


“This result is a historic step forward for inertial confinement fusion research, opening a fundamentally new regime for exploration and the advancement of our critical national security missions. It is also a testament to the innovation, ingenuity, commitment, and grit of this team and the many researchers in this field over the decades who have steadfastly pursued this goal,” said LLNL Director Kim Budil. “For me it demonstrates one of the most important roles of the national labs – our relentless commitment to tackling the biggest and most important scientific grand challenges and finding solutions where others might be dissuaded by the obstacles.”


This technique developed at the laboratory doesn’t rely on a tokamak to produce nuclear fusion. Instead, it uses an array of massive laser light amplifiers that focus laser beams on hydrogen pellets in a 33-foot-wide spherical metal “target chamber”. The lasers can produce up to 4 megajoules of energy, making them the most powerful in the world.


This design allows scientists to observe hydrogen’s behavior in thermonuclear weapons. Researchers also think it serves as a technique for producing nuclear fusion energy. However, this method cannot be implemented in fusion power plants. That’s because the lasers operate just once a day, making it complex since a power plant vaporizes hydrogen pellets every second. Now, researchers are exploring ways to change the process, which would allow commercial utilization.


“Gaining experimental access to thermonuclear burn in the laboratory is the culmination of decades of scientific and technological work stretching across nearly 50 years,” said Los Alamos National Laboratory Director Thomas Mason. “This enables experiments that will check theory and simulation in the high energy density regime more rigorously than ever possible before and will enable fundamental achievements in applied science and engineering.”


Stegfried Glenzer, a plasma physicist at the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory at Stanford University, says that SLAC scientists are building a laser system that consumes less power and fires lasers more rapidly. He hopes that energy sourced from nuclear fusion could substitute fossil fuels,  which has already been dominated by solar and energy and various technologies.


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