50 years ago, scientists dreamed of lasers that could kick off nuclear fusion

Excerpt from the September 29, 1973 issue of Science News

Fuel pellet for nuclear fusion

Nearly 200 powerful lasers at the National Ignition Facility in Livermore, Calif., blast a fuel pellet (illustrated), igniting nuclear fusion that can release more energy than the lasers put in.


A powerful pulse of laser light: Step toward fusion — Science News, September 29, 1973

One spur to the development of more powerful lasers is the possibility of using them in projects seeking to gain electric power from controlled thermonuclear fusion. The idea is to use laser light to evaporate, ionize and implosively compress a solid fuel pellet and thus trigger nuclear fusions.… Now the Sandia Laboratories in Albuquerque have announced a new laser that appears to be a significant step on the way.


Laser fusion is starting to hit its stride. Scientists at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California use 192 laser beams to blast a target with millions of joules of energy in an attempt to initiate fusion. Last year, the lab achieved ignition, in which more energy is released than initially hits the target (SN: 1/14/23, p. 6). Then in July, the lab repeated the feat, achieving the highest energy yield yet. A blast of about 2 million joules resulted in an output of nearly 4 million joules of fusion energy, according to a lab statement. But much more energy is required to power the laser facility, meaning laser fusion still isn’t a net power source.

Physics writer Emily Conover has a Ph.D. in physics from the University of Chicago. She is a two-time winner of the D.C. Science Writers’ Association Newsbrief award.

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