Jeff Chiu/AP
Project manager Edward Moses, right, and Associate Director George Miller are photographed
in front of the target chamber of the National Ignition Facility, or NIF, at the laser complex at
Lawrence Livermore National Laboratories in Livermore, Calif., March 22, 2005.

Lasers May Be the Latest Alternative Energy Source

December 16, 2009 08:00 AM
by Colleen Brondou
Using laser-fusion technology, experts hope to add “clean, inexhaustible energy source” to the laser’s distinguished resume.

Creating a Star in the Laboratory

Lasers are used to scan UPC bar codes at checkout counters, correct poor vision, operate laser printers and DVD players, remove unsightly body hair and locate military targets. When the laser turns 50 years old next year, it may possibly add a new achievement to its already long list of achievements: the producer of limitless, carbon-free energy.

Using lasers in combination with nuclear fusion, scientists at the Department of Energy’s National Ignition Facility (NIF) hope to mimic “the process that fuels the sun, stars and hydrogen bombs,” Robert S. Boyd writes for McClatchy Newspapers. The researchers plan to combine 192 lasers in order to create the pressure and heat needed to force hydrogen atoms to fuse; the “combination loses a tiny bit of mass, which turns into a huge quantity of energy,” Boyd explains. “It’s Einstein’s formula in action.”

The benefits of such a system are huge. According to NIF, a laser-fusion energy plant would never pose a threat of meltdown, as opposed to the traditional atomic energy plant. It would emit little radioactive fallout and zero greenhouse gases. Unlike solar or wind power, it wouldn’t be dependent on weather conditions and could operate round-the-clock. And unlike gas, oil or uranium, “its fuel source, mainly hydrogen, is virtually limitless,” Boyd reports.

Background: Nuclear power plants today

According to HowStuffWorks, as of July 2008, there were more than 430 nuclear power plants operating around the world. Nuclear power plants currently use nuclear fission—when one atom splits into two—to create energy.

If NIF’s scientists succeed, “fusion eventually could power a new class of atomic energy plants,” Boyd says. To create nuclear fusion, the researchers “hope to focus an array of intense laser beams on a pea-sized pellet of deuterium and tritium—heavy forms of hydrogen.” The laser beams would apply pressure and heat to the target, and hopefully the fuel would ignite.

If it works, the process would be “analogous to achievement of the first spark ever in an internal combustion engine,” Edmund Synakowski, an Energy Department fusion expert, was quoted as saying by Boyd. “The pursuit is one of the most challenging programs of scientific research and development that has ever been undertaken.”

Opinion & Analysis: Is laser fusion a feasible energy source?

As Boyd explains, Edward Moses, director of NIF, hopes the facility will attain ignition next year. But other experts are far less optimistic.

“The laser has to go miraculously well” for ignition to be successful, David Hammer, a nuclear engineer at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., told Boyd.

“Major technological and engineering challenges will still remain even after the demonstration of ignition,” Riccardo Betti, a physicist at the University of Rochester, told McClatchy.

Even NIF’s managers agree that laser fusion won’t be able to provide electricity to consumers for another 20 years.

Related Topics: Other laser applications; other alternative energy sources

In March, The Wall Street Journal reported that astrophysicists were fine-turning a laser beam that could be used to target and kill mosquitoes. It was hoped that the technology could help reduce the incidence of malaria around the world.

Lasers have been used for years to treat people with bad acne scars but now they’re being used to assist burn victims. With the use of an ultrapulse fractional ablative laser, the thick and disfiguring scars resulting from burns can be made smoother and more uniform in color.

In addition to lasers, experts are considering a host of other alternative energy sources, including algae, watermelons, tree fungus and even chocolate.

Reference: National Ignition Facility & Photon Science

According to its Web site, the National Ignition Facility (NIF) aims to create “nuclear fusion and energy gain in the laboratory for the first time—in essence, creating a miniature star on Earth.” Visit the Web site to learn more about the organization and its experiments.

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