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World’s most powerful laser fires most powerful laser blast ever

  • National Ignition Facility target area.jpg

    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)

  • National Ignition Facility Precision.jpg

    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)

  • National Ignition Facility Target Positioner.jpg

    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)

  • National Ignition Facility Target.jpg

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

  • National Ignition Facility final optics assemblies.jpg

    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)

And you thought you saw fireworks on the 4th of July!

The largest laser system in the world was turned on for a fraction of a second July 5, and it unleashed the most powerful laser blast in history -- besting a record set mere months earlier.

The National Ignition Facility (NIF) -- a laser test facility at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in Livermore, Calif. -- turned on its 192 laser beams for a scant instant the day after the nation celebrated its birth, unleashing a record-setting 1.85-megajoule blast into a target chamber that delivered more than 500 trillion watts of power.

Five hundred terawatts is 1,000 times more power than the United States uses at any instant in time, the facility said.

Scientists celebrated the historic test, which created conditions in the laboratory that had previously only existed deep within the heart of a star.

'Scientists are taking important steps toward ... the quest for clean fusion energy.'

- NIF director Edward Moses

“For scientists across the nation and the world who, like ourselves, are actively pursuing fundamental science under extreme conditions ... this is a remarkable and exciting achievement,” said Dr. Richard Petrasso, senior research scientist and division head of high energy density physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The test bested a record set March 15, when NIF unleashed a record-setting 1.8-megajoule blast into a target chamber.

In the historic test, NIF's 192 lasers fired within a few trillionths of a second of each other onto a 2-millimeter-diameter target. Beyond its sheer power, the beam-to-beam uniformity was within 1 percent, making NIF not only the highest energy laser of its kind but the most precise and reproducible.

“NIF is becoming everything scientists planned when it was conceived over two decades ago,” NIF director Edward Moses said.

“Scientists are taking important steps toward achieving ignition and providing experimental access to user communities for national security, basic science and the quest for clean fusion energy.”

In fission, atoms are split and the massive energy released is captured. NIF aims for fusion, the ongoing energy process in the sun and other stars where hydrogen and helium nuclei are continually fusing and releasing enormous amounts of energy. In the ignition facility, beams of light converge on pellets of hydrogen isotopes to create a similar, though controlled, micro-explosion.

As the beams move through a series of amplifiers, their energy increases exponentially. From beginning to end, the beams' total energy grows from one-billionth of a joule to a potential high of four million joules, NIF said -- a factor of more than a quadrillion. 

And it all happens in about five millionths of a second.

Because the laser is on for the merest fraction of a second, it costs little to operate -- between $5 and $20 per blast, spokeswoman Lynda Seaver told FoxNews.com in March, when an earlier test set the stage for the July 5 blast. 

NIF’s managers hope by the end of the year to reach a break-even point, where the energy released is equal to if not greater than the energy that went into the blast.

“We have all the capability to make it happen in fiscal year 2012,” Moses told Nature.