I am in Rochester, NY, for the week attending a thin films seminar (excitement! intrigue!) and had a chance to take a tour of the Laboratory for Laser Energetics (LLE). The LLE was established back in 1970 as a center for investigation of intense radiation interaction with matter – really big lasers focused down to very small areas. It is more likely that people have heard of the National Ignition Facility that is on the west coast. The goal of the NIF is to get to the point where fusion is possible in order to have a new energy source. Basically, it breaks down like this:
No matter what you believe about oil, natural gas, etc, we have a finite amount of these resources left here on Earth. That is a problem, energetically. For various reasons, both good and bad, nuclear fission has gotten somewhat of a bad rap and does have the very real downside of having radioactive waste to store (for information on how that is being accomplished in the US, check out the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory page to read up on the vitrification project at the Hanford site). Nuclear fusion, on the other hand, does not have the waste byproduct problem and has the potential to be a source of 3 to 4 times as much energy as the fission process. Fusion, as the name implies, deals with fusing atomic constituents together in a way that releases energy – the catch is that it takes an incredible amount of energy to “slam” the particles together and overcome the forces that normally keep them apart. Not only does it take a large force, but it has to be symmetric; you cannot hit the particles from one side, you have to hit them from all sides, at the same time, with the same force.
Even though the LLE isn’t involved with only NIF related projects, the idea is the same when it comes to application of the apparatus for experiments. The facility is set up with 2 targets and their associated laser systems. The “smaller” system, OMEGA EP, can be aimed into the main target area – OMEGA. OMEGA is the original system and consists of 60 separate beams that together hit the target. The OMEGA EP system consists of 4 beams that were built to mimic those at the NIF facility.
It was a pretty impressive site to see, there isn’t a whole lot that you get to actually see going on – it is completely sealed off during operation for good reasons. There is a lot of good things going on here, the promise of nuclear fusion seems to always be “10 years out”, even according to those doing the work – hopefully it pans out sooner rather than later. There are some real hurdles to overcome in order to make fusion a practical energy source. Right now they can operate the laser system once every hour which is quite fast in comparison to NIF. However, for this to be a commercial energy source they would need to be operating at something like 5-10 times per second, and have an efficient way to capture the energy.
I’m not sure if they give public tours of this place, but if you are in Rochester, NY sometime and want to see some seriously powerful laser equipment you should give them a call and see if they can get you in.