Scientists are one step closer to attaining the ultimate goal: producing temperatures high enough to sustain fusion, the reaction that powers our Sun and the possible future for global energy production. Researchers at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory in Oxfordshire, UK, have attained temperatures higher than the surface of the Sun, 10 million Kelvin (or Celsius), by using a powerful one petawatt laser called Vulcan. This experiment goes beyond the quest for fusion power; generating these high temperatures recreates the conditions of cosmological events such as supernova explosions, and astronomical bodies like white dwarfs and neutron star atmospheres…
This is some awesome research. An international collaboration of researchers from the UK, Europe, Japan and the US have succeeded in harnessing an equivalent of 100 times the world energy production into a tiny spot, measuring a fraction of the width of a human hair. That’s a whopping one petawatt of energy (one thousand million million watts, or enough to power ten trillion 100W light bulbs) focused on a volume measuring about 0.000009 metres (9Âµm) across (I took the value of the diameter of a human hair to be 90Âµm, as measured by Piezo Technology, in case you were interested). This is a vast improvement on previous tests, where the volume heated measured 20 times smaller than this new experiment. This feat was achieved through the use of Rutherford Appleton’s Vulcan laser.
The petawatt laser was able to attain this vast power by delivering a very short-period pulse onto the target. After all, the planet didn’t experience a black out as the laser was switched on, the laser is able to amplify the amount of power available by focusing on a microscopic volume for a short period of time. Vulcan blasted its target with the one petawatt laser beam for a mere 1 picosecond (one millionth of a millionth of a second). This may seem miniscule, but this microscopic period of time allowed the target material to be heated to the 10 million Kelvin.
These tests not only allow scientists to study what happens when matter is heated to such extremes, it also paves the way to more powerful lasers fusing the nuclei of hydrogen, deuterium and tritium. Self-sustaining nuclear fusion may then be possible, unlocking a gateway into a huge source of energy. It is conceivable that a future fusion reactor will use a powerful, focused laser to start fusion events, allowing the energy produced by each reaction to power the next. This is the basis of self-sustaining nuclear fusion.
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“This is an exciting development – we now have a new tool with which to study really hot, dense matter” – Prof. Peter Norreys, STFC funded researcher and Vulcan scientist.
The Vulcan has some stiff competition though. In the US, the Texas Petawatt laser broke the record for most powerful laser a few days ago, reaching energies in excess of one petawatt. But plans for a bigger UK laser, the Hiper (High Power laser Energy Research), will be even more powerful and is intended to investigate fusion power.