As far back as pre-historical times, mankind has always been fascinated with the energy supplying ability of the sun to provide the warmth and light needed to sustain life on our planet. That fascination led to numerous myths, legends, philosophies, and eventually, some deeply reasoned and strongly held scientific postulates and theories.
One such theory that still refuses to go away is the concept of nuclear fusion potentially being the perfect “endless” source of safe and inexpensive energy to power us into the next phase of civilized existence.
The dream has now returned as continued research and experimentation currently taking place at the National Ignition Facility at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory located in Livermore, California brings us yet another step closer to making this ancient dream a modern day reality.
Sounding more like “The Death Star” from the famous “Star Wars” series of science fiction films, the N.I.F. is a 10 story tall building that is so large, you could easily put three NFL football fields inside and still have space left over. Within this building is the world's largest and highest-energy laser that is designed specifically to fire the intense energy of 192 giant laser beams directly upon a BB-sized target filled with hydrogen fuel.
This process then fuses or ignites, the hydrogen atoms' nuclei, which in turn creates what scientists refer to as a controlled thermo-nuclear reaction. This thermo-nuclear reaction is precisely the same fusion energy process that makes the stars shine in the night sky and provides all the life-giving energy of our sun.
The N.I.F. will deliver more than 60 times more directed energy than any previous laser system fired on earth or in space by man. With all of its laser beams fully functional, the N.I.F. will focus approximately “Two Million Joules of ultraviolet laser energy on the bb sized target located in the center of its target chamber.
This will create conditions quite similar to those that exist only in the cores of suns and the resulting “fusion” reaction will then release multiple times the quantity of energy that was required to initiate the original laser energy blast required to set of the reaction.
The most notably significant difference is that now, for the very first time in more than 50 years of scientists colliding atoms together, trying to effectively harvest the essential source of “energy,” they will have a long-lasting reaction period that will increase the energy derived exponentially.
Previously scientists were never able to get the process to last more than a few mere seconds, but now the process will be a long lasting, controlled reaction, which will render multiple units of energy gained over the amount needed to trigger the initial reaction. This fusion process will actually create heat of more than 100 million degrees Centigrade and will produce pressure exceeding 100 Billion atmospheres! Also, unlike previous nuclear reactors, the fusion process supposedly cannot explode, so no Chernobyl style catastrophes should come from this technology.
So then, is this the ultimate solution for saving us all from the impending energy crisis with the fell swoop of a single nuclei splitting blast? The truth is we really just won’t know until the process has had a chance to run its course for a while to see if there are any flaws, negative side effects, or fixable glitches in the system that simply weren’t planned for or foreseen in the initial plan.
For example, there are still wide spread concerns about radioactivity, as “tritium” is the relatively short-lived but highly active isotope used to trigger the fusion process. Tritium has a history of being tremendously complicated to safely and predictably handle.
Also, the nuclear fusion process itself will naturally create extremely fast moving neutrons that will be smashing aggressively into the reactor walls, creating a lot of irradiate materials that will need to be safely disposed of. What if the integrity of the reactor wall is weakened and breached after millions or billions of wild, irradiated neutrons are smashed into it for an extended period of time?
Only time will tell, but we will keep our eyes on the prize and see if this process pays off with huge dividends or ends up going bust and placing us even further behind the environmental “8-Ball!”
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