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Massive laser inching closer to mastering fusion power

  • Before each experiment, a positioner precisely centers the target inside the target chamber and serves as a reference to align the laser beams.Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory

  • A service system lift allows technicians to access the target chamber interior at the National Ignition Facility for inspection and maintenance.Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory

  • This view from the bottom of the chamber shows the target positioner being inserted. Pulses from NIF's high-powered lasers race toward the Target Bay at the speed of light. They arrive at the center of the target chamber within a few trillionths of a second of each other, aligned to the accuracy of the diameter of a human hair.Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory

  • A NIF target contains a polished capsule about two millimeters in diameter, filled with cryogenic (super-cooled) hydrogen fuel.Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory

  • The final optics assemblies, shown here mounted on the lower hemisphere of the target chamber, contain special optics for beam conditioning, color conversion, and color separation. They also focus the beams from 40- by 40-centimeter squares of light to a spot on the target only 0.2 to 2 millimeters in diameter.Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory

Researchers have reportedly taken one small yet giant step towards "perfect power" -- fusion, the process that powers the sun and may ultimately solve the world's energy problems.

Fusion is similar to fission, where atoms are split releasing massive amounts of energy. But instead of being torn apart, fusion welds atoms together. It’s a perfect power because more energy is released than used, and a sort of holy grail for physicists.

To attempt it, scientists at the National Ignition Facility at Lawrence Livermore Labs in California use an ultrapowerful laser system, which melds 192 laser beams into a single incredible burst of energy that heats and compress a capsule of hydrogen fuel to the point at which fusion take place. 

The result of a late September test: the amount of energy released through the fusion reaction was greater than the amount of energy used, the BBC reported.

Reached on the phone by FoxNews.com, a NIF spokeswoman was unable to comment on the record due to the government slimdown.

'We’re working on the bleeding edge of fusion physics.'

- Ed Moses, principle associate director for NIF and Photon Science

The achievement was just one small part of the reaction needed to achieve fusion, a state NIF labels "ignition." But along with other successes, it moves the chains closer to the ultimate goal.

In mid-August, the National Ignition Facility passed another milestone: The facility was activated for 14 billionths of a second and its power pointed at a tiny capsule of fuel. They generated approximately 350 trillion watts of power -- hundreds of times more than the entire United States consumes at any given instant.

“We’re working in a place where no human has ever gone before,” Ed Moses, principle associate director for NIF and Photon Science, told FoxNews.com at the time. “We’re working on the bleeding edge of fusion physics.”

In the August test, NIF dialed down the laser beam’s power and tweaked it, for tremendous results.

We lowered the energy a tiny bit -- about 5 percent -- but more important, we changed the shape of the energy pulse. We moved energy from the back of the pulse to the front. We got three times the energy out,” Moses told FoxNews.com.

“Our goal is to get fusion burn -- more energy out than we put in.”

The September success was likely due to a similar tweak to the energy pulse.

Because the laser is on for the merest fraction of a second, it costs little to operate -- between $5 and $20 per blast. Still, the cost of the facility has raised temperatures in Washington. The gigantic laser lab was built in California for $3.5 billion in 2008, and ran up approximately $1.5 billion more in operating costs over the past five years.

Despite the latest success, ignition hasn’t happened, and NIF’s managers admitted to Congress in December of 2012 that they can’t guarantee that it will ever succeed.

"At present, it is too early to assess whether or not ignition can be achieved at the National Ignition Facility," wrote Thomas P. D'Agostino, administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) in a report requested by Congress last year.

Congress had given the facility until the end of 2012 to achieve its goal of ignition. The NNSA report proposed instead a three-year program to better understand why the actual implosion does not agree with scientific models. 

And three years may not be enough. "The three-year plan culminates in a comprehensive review at the end of FY 2015. At that time, NNSA will have an assessment of the likelihood and schedule for achieving ignition," the report said.