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Building the world's most powerful laser

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Sci/Tech

Ed Moses talks of the "grand challenge" that has consumed him for the past five years, comparing it to trying to hit the strike zone with a baseball from 350 miles (563 kilometers) away or tossing a dime into a parking meter from 40 miles (64 kilometers) away.

"That's the precision we have to have," says Moses, the director of a high-energy physics adventure to produce the world's most powerful laser -- one that scientists hope will create in a laboratory the type of energy found at the center of the sun.

In a building the size of a football stadium, engineers have assembled the framework for a network of 192 laser beams, each traveling 1,000 feet (305 meters) to converge simultaneously on a target the size of a pencil eraser.

The trip will take one-thousandth of a second during which the light's energy is amplified many billions of times to create a brief laser pulse 1,000 times the electric generating power of the United States.

The goal is to create unimaginable heat -- 180 million degrees Fahrenheit (82 million Celsius) -- and intense pressure from all directions on a BB-size hydrogen fuel pellet, compressing it to one-thirtieth of its size.

The result, the scientists hope, will be a fusing of atoms so that more energy is released than is generated by the laser beams, something scientists call fusion ignition. It is what happens when a hydrogen bomb explodes.

The government is investing $3.5 billion, and possibly several billion dollars more, in NIF for another reason: national security.

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