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Karyn N.

Lewis
0502-460-70 Science Writing
Winter 20082
Translation Assignment

Harnessing the energy of the stars:


Translation of “Initial performance results of the OMEGA laser system,” by Boehly et. al
for www.discovermagazine.com

Scientists have been attempting to tap into the energy unleashed by the sun and stars

since Albert Einstein’s equation E = mc2 derived nearly 100 years ago, which first raised the

possibility that fusing atoms together could release tremendous amounts of power. As more and

more is learned about temperatures, elements, and atoms, scientists are formulating ways to use

nuclear fusion to create unlimited amounts of energy on Earth. They now believe they are on the

brink of harnessing the power that created the universe in the first place—the Big Bang—and the

timing couldn’t be better. At a time when fossil fuel supplies are dwindling and fears about

global warming are continuously expanding, the University of Rochester’s Laboratory for Laser

Energetics (LLE) marks another important step in the effort toward attaining sustainable nuclear

fusion—the ultimate, inexhaustible source of clean energy.

Until recently, the pressure and temperature equivalent to the center of a typical star—

about 1 trillion atmospheres and upwards of 70 million degrees Fahrenheit—could only be

produced on Earth through nuclear explosions. With inertial confinement fusion, however, LLE

has been able to produce these kinds of temperatures and pressures in a laboratory. The OMEGA

laser delivers more than 30 kilojoules of ultraviolet light in just one billionth of a second. This

makes it among the three most powerful lasers in the world. The entire system stands just 10

meters tall and approximately 100 meters in length, focusing laser energy from 60 separate

beams onto a spherical target that measures less than 1 millimeter in diameter. Powerful? Indeed.

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Yet the OMEGA laser has become approximately 50 times more powerful still with the inclusion

of the OMEGA Extended Performance (EP) System.

Working in conjunction with the LLE’s original 60-beam OMEGA laser, the OMEGA

EP opened the door to a new concept called fast-ignition—an advanced and very promising

fusion-ignition technique that dramatically increases the energy derived from fusion

experiments—with its first shot in February 2008. The OMEGA EP comprises a set of four ultra-

high-intensity lasers that can unleash a laser power of one petawatt—a million billion watts—

making it the world’s most energetic short-pulse beam capable of supplying more power in a

brief instant of time than 1,000 times the entire U.S. electrical grid. Even more impressive, the

consistency of the system’s performance over many days of operation has proven its overall

mechanical stability.

In inertial confinement fusion, lasers beams are used to compress and heat a small

spherical target capsule containing deuterium and tritium isotopes of hydrogen to thermonuclear

temperatures. To release energy at a level required for the generation of electricity the fuel must

be heated to about 100 million degrees Celsius—more than six times that of the Sun’s core—and

confined long enough that more energy is released than required to sustain a reaction. The heat

and pressure on the capsule causes it to ablate outward much like the exhaust of a combustion

engine, creating a force on the inner portion of the capsule equivalent to the density of hundreds

of grams per cubic centimeter. The force, in turn, drives the capsule to implode, compressing and

heating the fuel inside and causing it to undergo fusion and release energy. The process is like a

rocket, only a spherical rocket in this case, and the material on the inside is pushed inward and

compressed, eventually collapsing on itself. When the nuclei of hydrogen isotopes—deuterium

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and tritium—collide and combine, an enormous amount of energy is released, converting mass

into energy per Einstein’s famous E = mc2 formula.

Under Einstein’s theory, the amount of energy locked up in one gram of matter is enough

to power 28,500 100-watt light bulbs for an entire year. Scientists expect that a nuclear power

plant will eventually be able to generate 1,000 megawatts—a thousand million watts—of

electricity, enough to service one million homes. To put that into perspective, just one megawatt

alone has enough power to handle 1,000 homes or turn on 10,000 100-watt light bulbs.

Furthermore, fusion is considered one of the only energy sources capable of satisfying the

growing need for power for the next century without the harmful environmental impacts of fossil

fuels. Luckily, the fuel for fusion—deuterium and tritium—occurs naturally in seawater and is

essentially inexhaustible. In a fusion power plant, one gallon of seawater would provide the

equivalent energy of 300 gallons of gasoline; fuel from just 50 cups would provide the

equivalent energy of two tons of coal. Just one cubic kilometer of seawater could generate the

same energy as the combustion of the entire world’s oil reserve! Additionally, a fusion-powered

plant would produce no climate-changing gases and considerably less environmentally harmful

radioactive byproducts than nuclear power plants currently do—without danger of a runaway

reaction or core meltdown.

First established in 1970 to investigate the interaction of intense radiation with matter, the

LLE program is jointly supported by the U.S. Department of Energy Office of Inertial

Confinement Fusion and the New York State Energy and Research and Development Authority

to provide qualified researchers with a unique environment for experiments in inertial fusion and

high-energy physics. Research scientists from throughout the world, U.S. national laboratories,

and universities travel to Rochester to use the OMEGA laser facilities. Beyond clean energy

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production, the OMEGA and OMEGA EP lasers at LLE will facilitate research impossible to

attempt almost anywhere else on Earth. If successful and attainable, the fast ignition setup in the

facility may lead to the strongest, the most promising, and even the most innovative energy

source ever achieved in a laboratory, marking the first step towards building a practical nuclear

fusion power station and a source of almost limitless energy. Meanwhile, performance results

continue to meet and exceed acceptance criteria, providing consistent accuracy that is more than

sufficient for extensive precision laser-fusion experiments. OMEGA continues to be a well-

characterized system that operates above specifications.

Resources:

A Unique National Resource. Laboratory for Laser Energetics. University of Rochester. 22 Jan. 2009
<http://www.lle.rochester.edu>. Path: About LLE; Visitors.

Boehly, T. R., et al. "Initial Performance Results of the OMEGA Laser System." Optics Communications 133.1-6
(1997): 495-506. ScienceDirect. 22 Jan. 2009 <http://www.sciencedirect.com/>.

Gresh, Lois H. Inertial Confinement Fusion: An Introduction. Rochester: University of Rochester Press, 2008.
Laboratory for Laser Energetics. University of Rochester. 22 Jan. 2009 <http://www.lle.rochester.edu>.
Path: Publications.

"Inertial Confinement Fusion." Laboratory for Laser Energetics. Feb. 2009. University of Rochester. 22 Jan. 2009
<http://lle.rochester.edu>. Path: About LLE; Visitors; Education; Graduate; Inertial Confinement Fusion.

Martindale, Diane. "Fusion Could Solve All Our Energy Problems, If Only We Could get it to Work." DISCOVER
1 Mar. 2002. 22 Jan. 2009 <http://discovermagazine.com/2002/mar/feattech>.

Seife, Charles. "Can Engineers Achieve the Holy Grail of Energy: Infinite and Clean?" DISCOVER 6 Oct. 2008. 22
Jan. 2009 < http://discovermagazine.com/2008/oct/06-can-engineers-achieve-the-holy-grail-of-energy >.

Winters, Jeffrey. "Physics Watch: Fusion’s Future?" DISCOVER 1 May 1998. 22 Jan. 2009
<http://discovermagazine.com/1998/may/physicswatchfusi1449>.

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