All you need to make a star on Earth is a tiny amount of the right material, a really powerful laser, and a fraction of a second:
In this process the capsule and its deuterium–tritium fuel will be compressed to a density many times that of solid lead, and heated to more than 100 million degrees Celsius (180 million degrees Fahrenheit)—hotter than the center of the sun. These conditions are just those required to initiate thermonuclear fusion, the energy source of stars.
By following our recipe, we would make a miniature star that lasts for a tiny fraction of a second. During its brief lifetime, it will produce energy the way the stars and the sun do, by nuclear fusion. Our little star will produce 10 to 100 times more energy than we used to ignite it.
That might seem like a simple formula, but replicating the extreme conditions that foster the fusion process has been one of the most demanding scientific challenges of the last half-century.
The idea for the National Ignition Facility (NIF) grew out of a decades-long effort to capture the energy of the sun and the stars in the laboratory. Current nuclear power plants, which use fission, or the splitting of atoms to produce energy, have been pumping out electric power for nearly 70 years. But achieving nuclear fusion—combining hydrogen atoms to release enough energy for electricity production—has not yet been demonstrated to be viable.
Physicists have pursued a variety of approaches to achieve nuclear fusion in the laboratory and to harness this potential source of unlimited energy for future power plants. NIF uses a process called inertial confinement fusion (ICF) to create the necessary pressures and temperatures needed for ignition. See Pursuing Fusion Ignition for a more detailed description of ICF.
For fusion burn and energy gain to occur, a special fuel consisting of the hydrogen isotopes deuterium and tritium must first implode into a tiny “hot spot” and then “ignite.” A primary goal for NIF is to achieve fusion ignition, in which the energy generated from the fusion reaction exceeds the energy absorbed by the target capsule—more energy “out” than “in.”
NIF was designed to produce extraordinarily high temperatures and pressures—tens of millions of degrees and pressures many billion times greater than Earth’s atmosphere. These conditions currently exist only in the cores of stars and planets and in nuclear weapons. In a star, strong gravitational pressure sustains the fusion of hydrogen atoms. The light and warmth that we enjoy from the sun, a star 93 million miles away, are reminders of how well the fusion process works and the immense energy it creates.
Learn more about NIF, lasers, and fusion by downloading the NIF Comic Book