Powerful Fusion Laser to Recreate Conditions Inside Exoplanets

Article written: 28 Feb , 2009
Updated: 24 Dec , 2015
by

[/caption]We’ve all heard that the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) will collide particles together at previously unimaginable energies. In doing so, the LHC will recreate the conditions immediately after the Big Bang, thereby allowing us to catch a glimpse of what particles the Universe would have been filled with at this time. In a way, the LHC will be a particle time machine, allowing us to see the high energy conditions last seen immediately after the Big Bang, 13.7 billion years ago.

So, if we wanted to understand the conditions inside a giant exoplanet, how could we do it? We can’t directly measure it ourselves, we have to create a laboratory experiment that could recreate the conditions in the core of one of these huge exoplanet gas giants. Much like the LHC will recreate the conditions of the Big Bang, a powerful laser intended to kick-start fusion reactions will be used in an effort to help scientists have a very brief look into the cores of these distant worlds…

The National Ignition Facility (NIF) at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California is ready for action. The facility will perform fusion experiments, hopefully making a self-sustaining nuclear fusion reaction a reality using an incredibly powerful laser (firing at a hydrogen isotope fuel). Apart from the possibility of finding a way to kick-start a viable fusion energy source (other laboratories have tried, but only sustained fusion for an instant before fizzing out), the results from the laser tests will aid the management of the US nuclear weapon stockpile (since there have been no nuclear warhead tests in 15 years, data from the experiments may help the military deduce whether or not their bombs still work).

Fusion energy and nuclear bombs to one side, there is another use for the laser. It could be used to recreate the crushing pressures inside a massive exoplanet so we can glean a better understanding of what happens to matter at these crushing depths.

The NIF laser can deliver 500 trillion watts in a 20-nanosecond burst, which may not sound very long, but the energy delivered is immense. Raymond Jeanloz, an astronomer at the University of California, Berkeley, will have the exciting task of using the laser, aiming it at a small iron sample (800 micrometres in diameter), allowing him to generate a moment where pressures exceed a billion times atmospheric pressure. That’s 1000 times the pressure of the centre of the Earth.

On firing the laser, the heat will vaporize the iron, blasting a jet of gas so powerful, it will send a shock wave through the metal. The resulting compression is what will be observed and measured, revealing how the metal’s crystalline structure and melting point change at these pressures. The results from these tests will hopefully shed some light on the formation of the hundreds of massive exoplanets discovered in the last two decades.

The chemistry of these planets is completely unexplored,” says Jeanloz. “It’s never been accessible in the laboratory before.”

Now that is one impressive laboratory experiment

Source: New Scientist


16 Responses

  1. Member

    Everything is scaled down in these tests. Just because the conditions of a nuclear bomb blast can be simulated, doesn’t mean there will be an energetic explosion taking out the lab. As far as I can tell, the shockwave is very short-lived, acting over tiny length-scales. It’s the same idea as the LHC, although “recreating the conditions just after the Big Bang” sounds pretty explosive, we are talking about extreme conditions at a very tiny length scale.

    A (undisclosed) friend of mine who worked at a (undisclosed) weapons research lab told me that although we can’t test the nuclear bombs themselves, we can test their effects. In particular X-rays generated by high-powered lasers. Everything else is done in computer simulations anyway. But observing these extreme shocks are at the cutting edge, we’re not sure how matter behaves under these conditions (though, they wont behave explosively, at least not on macroscopic scales)

    Cheers! Ian

  2. Salacious B. Crumb says

    “The NIF laser can deliver 500 trillion watts in a 20-nanosecond burst,”

    To hell with the debate on SI units, if you ask me! The power generated here is just absolutely incomprehensible, but compared to the Sun own core (calculated in my head), it is still only about a hundred billionth of the sun’s output each second. Wholly-doily.
    Amazing, if you ask me.

  3. Salacious B. Crumb says

    You made me think.
    “Apart from the possibility of finding a way to kick-start a viable fusion energy source.”
    I know do know what you mean, but I really don’t think this is very advisable to do in a direct experiment . I mean the consequent “boom!!” might be worrying – especially if it involves to “…aid the management of the US nuclear weapon stockpile.”

  4. Salacious B. Crumb says

    Ian said,
    “But observing these extreme shocks are at the cutting edge, we’re not sure how matter behaves under these conditions (though, they wont behave explosively, at least not on macroscopic scales)”

    Thanks for the important clarification. Phew! I’ll at least sleep better tonight! Cheers.

  5. Marco says

    The amazing part to me is not the energies involved. It is the time spans. That we can learn anything meaningful from anything that lasts incredibly small fractions of a second is nothing short of astounding. This experiment just reinforces that.

  6. There was no Big Bang so it’s impossible to “recreate” it’s conditions. The only being who might be able to recreate creationism is God.

  7. Member

    @Matt: Actually, it’s not “simply wrong”. Also, I refuse to pander to the hype being stirred by the anti-LHC crowd. Yes, there are higher energy collisions by cosmic rays in the Universe, this is a fact, but I’m not about to add disclaimers just to make people feel better about the safety of the LHC.

    The LHC is safe, fact.

    Besides, I used the LHC as a comparison to what is going to be done with this laser, if this was an LHC article I might have drawn comparisons with the cosmic ray argument.

  8. Matt says

    Very interesting article, I want to clarify one thing though.

    “In a way, the LHC will be a particle time machine, allowing us to see the high energy conditions last seen immediately after the Big Bang, 13.7 billion years ago. ”

    High energy collisions happen all the time throughout the universe, even at much higher energies than what the LHC will be capable of. The way you put it is simply wrong and reflects partly why the anti-LHC crowd claims that the LHC experiment will be in any way dangerous.

    What the LHC does however, is putting these collisions in a framework that can be studied: We can control when and how the collisions occur so that our detectors can analyse them.

  9. Matt says

    I’m nit-picky I know. 🙂

    The LHC is safe, sure. Refusing to pander to the hype is legitimate. Yep.

    What I meant to point out is just that we don’t do anything that doesn’t happen naturally all the time (as could be read into your article). There’s the irrational fear entrenched in public culture that everything artificial (“unnatural”) is bad. By pointing out that this, in fact, isn’t anything unnatural at all I wanted to prevent any such thoughts from rising in the mind of readers.

    If I came across over-critically on a point that wasn’t actually the subject of the article, be assured that it wasn’t my intention to annoy you with my nit-picking.

  10. Martin says

    According to my calculations (if i’m right) a 500e12W release of energy in 2e-10 seconds is equivalent to 27 kilowatt hours of power. It’s equivalent to the power consumption of a kilowat radiator running for 27 hours. Now that’s not a lot of energy. It’s the rate release (2e-10 sec instead of 27 hours) that gives it the kick.

    Martin

  11. Yael Dragwyla says

    Matt — You said: “There’s the irrational fear entrenched in public culture that everything artificial (“unnatural”) is bad.” Wanna know what “artificial” includes? Antibiotics. Insulin for diabetics. Synthetic thyroxin for those with dead thyroid glands. Caesarian deliveries in obstetric wards. Modern burn care. Modern dental care. Water-tight shelters such as modern homes. Modern fire-fighting equipent. Guns for hunters and self-protection. And so on. Point this out to that same crowd, making sure that at least some of them are taking modern medications or have taken them in the past for serious illness or injury (substitute “undergoing medical therapies” for “taking medications,” same deal), and I think you may just bust that crowd up — it’ll self-destruct as those who benefit from modern therapies have it out with those who “don’t believe in them” (until it happens to *them*). 😀

  12. Dave says

    @Oilsmastery: Evidence based science…doing the ‘impossible’ since 1700BC….

  13. alphonso says

    I saw the NIF on an edition of ‘Horizon’ in the UK a couple of weeks ago.
    This sounds cool – are there any lawyers with their pens at the ready THIS time??????

  14. UK David says

    Martin

    “It’s the rate release (2e-10 sec instead of 27 hours) that gives it the kick.”

    quite right – power output is proportional to 1/duration. Shortening the pulse would increase the power.

    I especially like your radiator comparison – it helps to put these things in perspective

  15. Vanamonde says

    Mmm, after this thing goes pop in 20 ns with 500 petawatts, how long to do it again? And again? And again? The name implies it could achieve the break even point for fusion power, right? A little X laser here and some magentohydrodynamic recovery there, and you really have something. I cannot wait to read more about it!

    And Dave, please don’t feed the troll.

  16. Gavin Flower says

    “500 petawatt”

    Hmm…

    This demands some bright spark to linik it to a pun involving the word “petty” (as in the sense of small and insignificant)!

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