The UR Laboratory for Laser Energetics recently received $72.6 million in federal funding to continue construction on the Extended Performance Omega Laser and Inertial Confinement Fusion project as part of the National Nuclear Security Administration’s high energy-density physics program.
Of the total funding allocated through the Energy and Water Appropriations Act, $25 million is assigned to the completion of the four-beam EP Omega laser, expected to be fully functional by 2007.
The EP Omega Laser will allow physicists to conduct a wide variety of high intensity, relativistic and laser matter interaction experiments, according to LLE Deputy Director Steven Loucks.
“Ignition, a demonstration of getting more energy out of a fusion capsule than was put into the capsule will demonstrate the physics required to allow this energy source to be pursued as an inexhaustible one,” Loucks said.
Pairing the EP Omega laser and its older counterpart, the Omega laser, the LLE will be the first facility to conduct fully integrated cryogenic low-temperature fast ignition experiments.
“A short pulse high-intensity laser beam provides a fast electron source to heat a compressed core of fusion material,” Loucks said. This technique, called fast ignition, promises to provide up to 10 times the energy yield over ‘hot spot’ ignition. For comparison, normal hot spot ignition is to a diesel engine as fast ignition is to a spark plug engine.”
Fusion, the reaction that powers the sun and stars, takes place under temperatures of 100 million degrees centigrade and extremely high pressures, and therefore confines hydrogen.
Some fusion research attempts to harness the nearly self-sustaining hydrogen fuel, and therefore may offer an alternative to the stressed petroleum and natural gas reserves now relied upon.
Astrophysics Ph.D. candidate Stephanie Sublett uses the Omega laser to create and study conditions analogous to the birth and death of stars. Regarding astrophysics, Sublett said that the laws of physics guide her laser-run experiments, which target plasma millimeters in diameter in addition to plasma which spans light-years of our universe.
“This laser is a resource for the entire country,” Sublett said. “There will only be a few comparable lasers in the world, and much of physics cannot be studied experimentally anywhere else in the world.”
Unlike nuclear fission, which is currently used in power plants, fusion does not emit pollutants. Its fuel, hydrogen, is nearly inexhaustible, as it can be derived in great bulk from ocean water.
“It’s impossible to say whether or not laser fusion will ever be turned into a fusion power plant, but any fusion research is important since oil reserves can only provide the world with energy for a few more decades. Coal could only last a few centuries, solar energy is terribly inefficient and fission power plants are risky,” Sublett said. “Fusion could provide millions of times more energy than many energy sources combined, cleanly and safely.”
The Omega EP consists of four 200-foot-long beams and a 70-foot-long Grating Compressor Chamber and a target chamber, all of which reside in the newly constructed Robert L. Sproull Center for Ultra High Intensity Laser Research, named after UR’s seventh president.
In 1995, with $61 million of funding, the Omega laser surpassed the Nova at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, making it the world’s most powerful laser.
Welzer can be reached at