Will we ever be able to produce nuclear fusion? It is, according to some, the ultimate form of clean energy—-carbon-neutral with minimally radioactive waste. And there's certainly no lack of companies trying. But researchers at the National Ignition Facility at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory have made a major step forward this week by producing laser energy with over 1 megajoule of power—that's 30 times the energy delivered by any other group of lasers ever, and close to the conditions necessary for nuclear fusion ignition.
The NIF laser system, the only megajoule laser system in the world, began firing all 192-laser beams onto targets in June 2009. In order to characterize the X-ray drive achieved inside the target cylinders as the laser energy is ramped up, these first experiments were conducted at lower laser energies and on smaller targets than will be used for the ignition experiments. These targets used gas-filled capsules that act as substitutes for the fusion fuel capsules that will be used in the 2010 ignition campaign. The 1 MJ shot represents the culmination of these experiments using an ignition-scale target for the first time.
The next step is to experiment with ignition-like fuel capsules. Tests are expected to begin this summer. We'll be watching to see if the lab beats companies like Helion Energy, Burnaby, and General Fusion to the punch.