The business and culture of our digital lives,
from the L.A. Times

« Previous Post | Technology Home | Next Post »

Livermore Laboratory shows off world's biggest laser gun [PIC]

May 29, 2009 |  4:24 pm

Today, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory dedicated the world's largest laser system. The National Ignition Facility, with its 192 giant laser beams, fills up an entire 10-story building in Livermore, Calif., about 45 miles east of San Francisco. 

No, all that laser power is not to shoot down UFOs or melt ice on Mars -- the goal is even more elusive: sustained nuclear fusion. 

When the system goes online in two to three years, the nearly 200 lasers will focus all their power inward at a tiny 2-millimeter ball of frozen hydrogen gas, zapping it with 60 times more energy than any laser system that's come before. How much juice is that? Try 2 million joules.

How much juice is that?

"It's never been done before under controlled conditions," wrote the lab's Bob Hirschfeld in an e-mail.  "Just in nuclear weapons and in stars."

If things go well, lighting a mini-sunfire inside that hydrogen ball would release far more energy than the already gigantic amount of energy the laser is putting in. The main goal of fusion science is, of course, to create a nearly endless supply of safe and carbon-free electricity without the need to create nuclear byproducts. But scientists hope it could also be beneficial for astrophysics, as well as inspection and explosion-free testing of the U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile.

Here's a picture of the laser; click to see at full resolution:

Credit: Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory .

-- David Sarno