This week, scientists from around the world are meeting at the Laboratory for Laser Energetics (LLE) at the University of Rochester to discuss how to improve experiments using the laboratory's OMEGA laser, including attempts to meet society's increasing energy demands by harnessing the power of the stars. In the lab, scientists at LLE are working to mimic the very same thermonuclear fusion reactions occurring in our sun, and all other stars, that produce vast amounts of energy.
"The most significant potential commercial application of fusion is the generation of everyday electric power that the world depends on," says Robert McCrory, director of LLE. "And fusion would provide for environmentally sustainable forms of energy."
"Our laboratory is deeply involved in a national effort to achieve fusion ignition," says John Soures, manager of the National Laser Users' Facility at LLE. "If successful, this would represent a major leap forward in the development of clean, safe, and abundant sources of energy intended to combat climate change and reduce U.S. dependence on foreign oil."
Unlike nuclear fission—which produces vast amounts of energy, but also radioactive waste that must be safely stored for tens of thousands of years—fusion has the potential to generate even more energy while also generating no nuclear waste. In addition, the fuel for fusion occurs naturally in water, making it an essentially inexhaustible resource.
Given the Obama administration's recent directive to focus on basic physical science research with the goal of charting new paths toward the development of alternative energy sources, LLE will be an important player in the national effort to realize fusion ignition and explore new frontiers in high-energy-density physics. According to McCrory, LLE's role in this effort will also help Rochester maintain its worldwide leadership in laser science and optical physics.
Fiscal year 2009 marks the first year that OMEGA Extended Power, or EP—an upgrade to the original OMEGA laser completed in April 2008—is accessible to researchers outside of the laboratory for conducting fusion-related experiments.
The one hundred scientists coming to LLE, representing 26 universities and laboratories from four countries, are known as the OMEGA Laser Facility Users Group and they are meeting for the first time.
The OMEGA laser is capable of delivering more than a petawatt—a million billion watts—of power onto a millimeter scale target. Achieving fusion ignition requires such intensities because the fuel must be heated to nearly 100 million degrees—more than six times hotter than the Sun's interior—and compressed to extremely high densities. Only by bringing the fuel to these fusion conditions can a self-sustaining reaction occur so as to produce more energy than was initially supplied.
"LLE is one of just a few places in the world that allows scientists to study conditions similar to those at the center of the sun," says Soures. "In addition to energy research, this opens up all sorts of possibilities for studying previously unexplored areas, such as laboratory astrophysics."
Nationally, LLE is key partner in the National Ignition Campaign (NIC) (https://lasers.llnl.gov/programs/nic/), an experimental effort involving 5 major U.S. laboratories—including the recently completed National Ignition Facility in Livermore, California—aimed at achieving fusion ignition. The NIC seeks to carry out the first successful ignition attempt in 2010, and to have developed robust ignition by 2012.
Locally, the laboratory receives the University's largest yearly grant of federal research dollars. And the tens of millions of dollars LLE receives each year to fund its scientific research makes the lab a major employer in Rochester's high-tech industry, with approximately 360 full-time scientists and researchers, along with roughly 130 paid student researchers.
For more information on LLE visit: http://www.lle.rochester.edu