Clean, sustainable, and renewable energy is a hot topic. Our world runs on energy and our production and use of energy shouldn’t put us or future generations in harm’s way. Society has responded to increasing power demands with technology such as nuclear fission. Fission splits uranium into smaller elements and releases large amounts of energy used to heat water in nuclear reactors and ultimately produce electricity.   

Alternatively, there are renewable energy sources such as solar energy, wind power, tidal power, and even geothermal heat. So, where does fusion fit in? Fusion is what energizes our sun. Fusion is the fusing or combining of two or more smaller atoms into a larger one. Fusion has a nearly unlimited fuel supply (hydrogen from water) and has minimal by-products.  And if containment is lost in a fusion plant, the fusion reaction simply stops. However, these benefits are countered by the difficulty in harnessing fusion.

Science and Manufacturing Step Up

This is where the scientific community and high tech manufacturing firms are stepping up and advancing fusion. Take, for example, the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) in California, United States. Recently inside its National Ignition Facility (NIF) they generated more than 10 quadrillion watts of fusion power for a fraction of a second. This is roughly 700 times the generating capacity of the entire US electrical grid. Their goal is to produce more energy than it consumes in a sustainable fusion reaction.

In attempting to achieve nuclear fusion, NIF houses an array of optics and mirrors that amplify and split a pulse of photons into 192 ultraviolet laser beams — focusing them on a hydrogen target smaller than a pencil eraser. When the beams hit the small target, it creates temperatures and pressures seen only in stars and thermonuclear bombs. Initial results at NIF from this year indicate that the fusion reactions generated a record 70% of the power that went into the experiment and is getting closer to achieving ignition. These outcomes show a promising future for fusion power.

Optical manufacturing firms like Zygo Corporation have served an important role in these fusion experiments worldwide. ZYGO manufactured nearly all the flat specialty optical windows used in directing NIF’s 192 laser beams. These high quality glass components are referred to as amplifier slabs because they amplify the beam to increase its power to the levels required to facilitate the goal of ignition.  From the beginning of the laser pulse to the end target the beams’ total energy grows from 1 billionth of a joule to 4 million joules, doing so in a few millionths of a second. In addition to the amplifier slabs, ZYGO also supplied NIF with transport mirrors, deformable mirrors, polarizers, phase plates, gratings, vacuum windows, and main debris shields. 

ZYGO specializes in fabricating and coating large complex optics, such as those used by NIF, that require stringent cleanliness. Contact us to learn more.