Big Government, Big Lasers


(The interior of the NIF target chamber. Credit is given to Lawrence Livermore National Security, LLC, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, and the Department of Energy under whose auspices this work was performed.)

At a time when we're arguing vehemently about what government should and shouldn't be doing, I thought I'd point out something pretty amazing an arm of the government just did.

On Wednesday, the National Ignition Facility in California fired its 192 lasers at a pellet the size of a pencil eraser, successfully delivering one megajoule of energy -- about 500 times all the energy being used in the country at any one time. It all happened within a few billionths of a second.

That's right: Superlaser. Megalaser. Ginormolaser.

What they are trying to do at the NIF is recreate the nuclear fusion that happens at the center of the sun. When they blast a tiny fuel pellet containing deuterium and tritium (two hydrogen isotopes) with this focused laser beam, the laser energy will be converted to X-rays, and the fuel will be compressed at huge pressures until it reaches 200 million degrees Fahrenheit. The hydrogen nuclei will then fuse, producing helium -- and throwing off surplus energy. Wednesday's test didn't use the fuel they will eventually employ -- it was to test whether the laser array could produce the energy necessary. And that worked, creating the strongest laser blast the world has ever seen.

So far, the government has spent about $3.5 billion on this project, and it's always possible it will ultimately fail. There are scientists who think this is never going to work, that the technical hurdles are too high. Which is the reason that only government could do it -- no private company would invest that much money on a process whose results are so uncertain. But if it does work, the payoff will be unimaginably large.

How large? Well, how does essentially limitless energy, with zero carbon emissions sound?

And unlike today's nuclear reactors, a facility using this method would have no potential for a chain reaction and create no radioactive waste or materials that someone could steal to make a nuclear weapon. In fact, it could use our existing nuclear waste as fuel, using it up in the process. They've named this planned reactor the Laser Inertial Fusion Engine, or LIFE.

If we do end up getting all our electricity from this fusion process, it won't be for a couple of decades at least. And to repeat, maybe it will never work. But it's the kind of potentially transformative technology that sometimes, only government can create.

--Paul Waldman

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