Inside the UR Laboratory for Laser Energetics

Inside the UR Laboratory for Laser Energetics

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ROCHESTER, N.Y. — The Federal Government wants scientists at the University of Rochester’s Laboratory for Laser Energetics to change the world, and it’s giving researchers millions of dollars to try and make it happen. 

Over the next five years, the Laser Lab will get more than $500 million in federal dollars to continue its work supporting the nation’s security missions, while adding an additional $10 million to lead a national research hub dedicated to advancing inertial fusion energy. 

If you’re a scientist, you know exactly what that means. But the rest of us might need a little help understanding just what they’re working on. That’s why News10NBC Investigative Reporter Jennifer Lewke paid a visit to the lab this week.

Beyond the walls of the Laboratory for Laser Energetics is a small city of 450 scientists, engineers and technicians and two massive lasers working to create nuclear fusion as a clean and nearly limitless source of energy.

“Our main focus is to do fusion and to create, eventually, more energy than we put in to an implosion,” explains Dustin Froula a Distinguished Scientist at LLE. 

The first big breakthrough came last year when researchers were able to do just that. They call it ignition. 

“It took us about 50 years to actually demonstrate fusion in the laboratory. Now of course, fusion happens every day. That’s what drives the sun. But in order to do that in the laboratory, in a controlled way, it took us a really long time,” Froula says.

Now they need to repeat and expand the results and of course eventually figure out how to best capture the energy that is created.

“We need to be able to harness it, as you say, and we need to be able to do it reproducibly every second basically, or maybe multiple times per second. And out of that comes neutrons and heat, and we then need to use that heat to boil water and drive turbines that would then create energy and drive our cities,” says Froula.

The Federal Government has ambitious goals when it comes to a timeline.

“By 2035 they would like to see a prototype fusion power plant,” says Froula.

So, the work at the lab never stops. Three times a week, every 45 minutes or so, researchers from across the country come to conduct experiments that require the lasers to be fired. 

Each laser is hundreds of yards long and ultimately leads to a frozen pellet of hydrogen isotopes barely visible to the human eye.

“Not only do we have to make sure that those laser beams all point and hit that to an incredible precession. But they all end up, all of that energy ends up going into that,” says Froula.

It will take a full team of scientists to reach the goals of the laser lab. So in addition to the University of Rochester graduate students, they also invite undergrads and high schoolers in to learn about the lasers and the mission,.

“That’s a big deficit within the country, is where do we find the people, where do we develop the people? That’s a lot of what we do in this building,” Froula says.