How to make the sun shine

Nathan Smith

Inside the luminescent nebulae of deep space, molecular clouds bunch together more and more until they become so dense that a gravity well is born, and the mass of dust and elements collapses into a newborn star.  This is the beginning of one of the greatest dynamos in the cosmos, a ball of plasma and light that pumps out phenomenal amounts of energy over the course of billions of years.  Scientists at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) — a government operated lab in California — have been attempting to recreate this process of controlled inertial confinement fusion, effectively creating a star in hopes of solving the world’s energy crises, since June 2009.  In Livermore, California, home of LLNL and its National Ignition Facility, tests are ongoing.

The idea of creating a star here on Earth obviously raises a few eyebrows, and undoubtedly conjures up images of Star Trek reruns, but the science of this ambitious endeavor are quite real.  So what’s the fact behind this seemingly fictional experiment?

Using the National Ignition Facility (NIF) — one of the world’s largest lasers, essentially a factory of channels and complex mirrors for directing concentrated beams of light — 192 separate laser beams, which initially total up to one mega-joule of energy, are thrown through the channels and tubes, amplifying more and more as they travel.  After approximately a mile, all 192 beams of light converge on one single nuclear pile, a pile no bigger than a droplet of water.  This nuclear pile is a heterozygous mix of deuterium and tritium — two hydrogen isotopes that can, conveniently, be found in seawater — encased in a small, gold capsule for safe containment.  When all 192 beams from the facility converge on the gold-encased capsule of nuclear material, the nuclei of the contained tritium and deuterium are fused together with tremendous heat and pressure, heating the material to 100 million degrees Celsius and collapsing it under 100 million times the pressure of the Earth’s atmosphere.

Naturally, with this sort of seemingly chaotic and mindless atomic fusion, people begin to fear that those “nut-case” scientists are going to destroy our Earth through some miscalculation or cliché world domination plot — comparable to the fear that was conjured up by CERN’s Large Hadron Collider, which some supposed would create a micro-singularity significant enough to suck in the entire planet.  However, just like the fear surrounding CERN’s LHC, fear of this project is unprecedented.  Though this project may sound like an exhibition of awesome power, the truth of the matter is that the results of Livermore Lab’s “Titan Laser” experiments can be greatly exaggerated.  In actuality, the “star” will be unfathomably small — about five microns, which is smaller than even the width of a strand of hair — and it will only last for 200 trillionths of a second if it’s produced at all. Livermore may be cooking up stars, but it is highly unlikely that these stars will be cooking up us.

In early 2010 the experiments at Livermore Lab’s NIF began to catch the public’s eye (and fear).  The goal was to reach a successful ignition by summertime that year — however, this was not to be.  In fact, the first successful ignition LLNL reported wasn’t until October of that year.  Currently, LLNL plans to finish all research by 2012.

Although there have been many setbacks, like the NIF ending its construction five years behind schedule, or delaying ignition through summer 2010, workers at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, and advocates of this “starry-eyed” project that come from outside the government facility, are highly confident that the creation of a star is not only capable, but is the solution to all the world’s energy problems, creating a virtually limitless power source.  LLNL may not exactly be ahead of schedule, but it seems that science is beginning to quickly outrun science fiction.