On Thursday, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu attended a ceremony inaugurating the world's largest fusion reactor in Livermore, Calif. Called the National Ignition Facility (NIF), this facility is 10 stories tall, three football fields long, and contains 192 powerful lasers which focus into a spherical 'target chamber' that looks more like a prop from Terminator than it does a piece of lab equipment.
This is nuclear like you have never seen it before. Unlike its sloppy cousin nuclear fission, nuclear fusion dispenses with radioactive uranium rods and massive cooling towers. Instead it focuses all its attention on one tiny little bead made from frozen hydrogen 2 millimeters across.
Though hydrogen is essentially a limitless, "free" source of energy, this particular bead cost about $40,000 to create. The hydrogen pellet has to be perfectly spherical so that it implodes uniformly and reaches the desired 100,000,000 degrees centigrade, which replicates the heat at the core of a star.
Though there have been many successful attempts at simulating nuclear fusion, NIF will be the first to do so and show a net positive energy gain. In other words, the ignition process will produce more energy than it consumes.
NIF has been 15 years in the making, and of course it has many technical hurdles to overcome. But if it proves successful Schwarzenegger may be right in proclaiming that California's star factory could now "revolutionize our energy future."
You can check out photos of the fusion devices on the NIF wesbite.
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