Dignitaries and top scientists gathered near San Francisco Friday for the formal opening of a massive new facility that they hope will accomplish what was once thought impossible — nuclear fusion, the Holy Grail of energy sources.
The National Ignition Facility at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory will focus 192 laser beams on a hydrogen pellet the size of a bead, heating it to incredible temperatures in an attempt to recreate the power of the sun.
California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Energy Secretary Steven Chu were scheduled to appear at the ceremony, which began at 10:30 a.m. PDT.
Nuclear fusion would create huge amounts of energy from tiny amounts of fuel. It would produce far less radioactive waste than conventional nuclear reactors. But it takes huge amounts of energy to trigger, and so far humans have managed to do so only by detonating atomic bombs.
"We have this big ball, right?" Ed Moses, program director of the National Ignition Facility, explained to Fox News. "And we hold our little targets inside of there, and the light focuses on there, and that's where all the action happens."
The "action" aims to trigger a tiny thermonuclear explosion inside the huge target chamber, a blast sparked by the lasers, which bounce off a series of lenses and mirrors, intensifying and multiplying with each pass.
"Pretty soon you have a lot of 'em," says Moses, "and we have enough energy to drive our targets, to a point where they get to over 100 million degrees and it's a pretty warm day."
Eventually turning ultraviolet, the beams push a million miles an hour toward the tiny hydrogen-fuel pellet in the center.
The resulting burst of energy should be so powerful, it could light up the entire country — but for only a split second.
Nuclear fusion has never been achieved on Earth, and critics argue the facility's $3.5 billion price tag is a waste of taxpayer money.
"We don't need this machine to solve our energy problems," says Dr. Arjun Makhijani of the Institute for Energy and Environment Research in Takoma Park, Md. "The main thing the National Ignition Facility has accomplished so far is to burn a hole in the taxpayers' pocketbook."
And there's been some local opposition, reports Oakland TV station KTVU.
A Livermore-based group called Tri-Valley Communities Against a Radioactive Environment said in a statemen that the NIF was $4 billion over budget, 9 years behind schedule and was also built to help design future nuclear weapons.
"The facility is designed to do experiments that are confined within in the target chamber," project director Brian MacGowen told KTVU. "There has been a very thorough analysis of the potential impact of those experiments on the rest of the building and the community. They have all been reviewed extensively and the experiments are perfectly safe."
But researchers here are confident their efforts will pay off — and be the game changer for meeting the world's energy needs.
"It would change how we look at global warming. It would change pollution," says Moses. "It would change all of those things. This is a small investment for that great payback."
Already, the NIF has produced 25 times more energy than any other laser system — even enough to power 10,000 light bulbs for a second.
Serious ignition experiments are due to begin next year.
FOX News' Claudia Cowan contributed to this report.