Laser “Quantum Leap”
Photograph courtesy Damien Jemison, LLNL

Inside the World’s Most Powerful Laser

Brian Handwerk

Published November 29, 2012

Looking like a portal to a science fiction movie, preamplifiers line a corridor at the U.S. Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory’s National Ignition Facility (NIF).

Preamplifiers work by increasing the energy of laser beams—up to ten billion times—before these beams reach the facility’s target chamber.

The project’s lasers are tackling “one of physics’ grand challenges”—igniting hydrogen fusion fuel in the laboratory, according to the NIF website. Nuclear fusion—the merging of the nuclei of two atoms of, say, hydrogen—can result in a tremendous amount of excess energy. Nuclear fission, by contrast, involves the splitting of atoms.

This July, California-based NIF made history by combining 192 laser beams into a record-breaking laser shot that packed over 500 trillion watts of peak power-a thousand times more power than the entire United States uses at any given instant.

“This was a quantum leap for laser technology around the world,” NIF director Ed Moses said in September. But some critics of the $5 billion project wonder why the laser has yet to ignite a fusion chain reaction after three-and-a-half years in operation. Supporters counter that such groundbreaking science simply can’t be rushed.

Read more: Pictures: Inside the World's Most Powerful Laser — National Geographic.

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