Over at the National Ignition Facility in California is the world's most powerful laser, and it's tasked with bringing about the dream of pollution-free, clean fusion power (well, when it's not busy doing military-related things). It just completed its first firing test at near full energy.
The $3.5 billion device could one day realize fusion ignition — which would mean we get more energy out of a reaction than we put into it — in such a way that would allow us to power our homes and businesses and what-have-you. Right now, however, the facility is studying the results of 192 laser beams converging in a 30-foot-in-diameter metal sphere (pictured above) and delivering a 1 megajoule blast to a hydrogen-filled pellet. This represents the laser's first successful dry run, firing at around 75% of its maximum power.
After this test, the team at NIF will continue to ramp up the energy every month for the next few years before firing the facility at full-power. "The facility is like a new car engine," MIT fusion scientist and NIF technician Richard Petrasso told Wired. "You don't hit the peddle all the way down to the ground the first time. You have to tune it to get all of the conditions just right — the laser, the diagnostics and the surface of the capsule."
Even after the laser is at full strength, we may have to wait a little bit for said fusion ignition. Though that's pretty much the purpose for the facility, most of its time is dedicated to government-directed experiments, such as simulating fusion bomb explosions.
Is the potential there, though? According to Petrasso, it is: "The energy potential is there, for sure. The question is about practical implementation. There are a lot of issues that have to be dealt with to turn it into a reactor that makes energy."