Record-Breaking Laser Delivers 500 Trillion Watts

By Chelsea Whyte on July 20, 2012 11:30 PM EDT

laser beam
The preamplifiers of the National Ignition Facility are the first step in increasing the energy of laser beams as they make their way toward the target chamber. NIF recently achieved a 500 terawatt shot - 1,000 times more power than the United States uses at any instant in time. (Photo: Damien Jemison/LLNL)

Physicists at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory have produced a record-shattering laser beam at the National Ignition Facility. Using 192 beams of ultraviolet light, the team delivered a laser of more than 500 trillion watts (terawatts or TW) of power focused on a 2 millimeter spot, giving the saying "laser precision" a new meaning.

To give you an idea of just how much power they were wrangling, 500 TW is 100 times more power than is used in the United States at any one instant. The lasers also produced 1.85 megajoules of energy - 100 times what any laser regularly produces.

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The record-setting beam could help in the lab's attempt to create sustainable fusion energy, which would mimic the nuclear reactions that fuel stars.

"The 500 TW shot is an extraordinary accomplishment by the NIF Team, creating unprecedented conditions in the laboratory that hitherto only existed deep in stellar interiors," said Richard Petrasso, a physicist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The lab houses the world's largest laser in a building the size of three football fields and its purpose is to harness the power of 'fusion ignition' - or sustainable nuclear fusion reactions - that lead to new forms of sustainable clean energy

The 500-terawatt shot on July 5 brings scientists closer to solving a longstanding physics challenge and arguably the field's holy grail: getting back more energy than you give, reports CNN.

Each of the 192 lasers fired within a few trillionths of a second of each other and hitting a mark the size of the tip of a crayon, which is about the size of a capsule that can hold the deuterium and tritium fuel needed for achieving fusion - the process that creates energy from the fusing of atoms, according to The Huffington Post.

"Already the most incredibly tightly controlled and most energetic laser in the world, it is remarkable that NIF has achieved the 500 TW milestone -- quite a significant achievement," said Dr. Raymond Jeanloz, professor of astronomy and earth and planetary science at the University of California, Berkeley. "This breakthrough will give us incredible new opportunities in studying materials at extreme conditions."

Original concerns about achieving these levels of extreme laser performance on NIF centered in part on the quality of optics existing in the late 1990s, when the lab was created, that could not withstand this intense laser light.

The scientists at the NIF are attempting to develop not only the most powerful laser, but also the most reproducible results. They've worked closely with their industrial partners to "drastically reduce" the number of minuscule defects in the lasers' optics, according to The Verge.

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