The National Ignition Facility (NIF) Count Down to “Ignition” by 2012

“Creating a miniature star on Earth” is the goal of the National Ignition Facility (NIF), home to the world’s largest and highest-energy laser in Livermore, California. On September 29th, 2010, the NIF completed its first integrated ignition experiment, where it focused its 192 lasers on a small cylinder housing a tiny frozen capsule containing hydrogen fuel, briefly bombarding it with 1 megajoule of laser energy. The experiment was the latest in a series of tests leading to a hoped-for “ignition”, where the nuclei of the atoms of the fuel inside the target capsule are made to fuse together releasing tremendous energy – potentially more energy than was put in to start the initial reaction, becoming a valuable power source. The NIF has cost over $3.5 billion since 1997 and is a part of the federally funded Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. Scientists at NIF say they hope to achieve fusion by 2012. (Photo Gallery, NIF & Photon Science)

The National Ignition Facility (NIF) and related NIF & Photon Science programs – the National Ignition CampaignPhoton Science & ApplicationsInertial Fusion Energy and Science at the Extremes – are pursuing three complementary missions:

National Security

How can we ensure the nation’s security without nuclear weapons testing? Maintaining the U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile as a deterrent against foreign aggression has been a mainstay of national policy since the end of World War II. No new nuclear weapons are currently being built, however, and the existing weapons cannot be tested under a nuclear testing moratorium established by President George H.W. Bush in 1992. To ensure the continuing reliability of the nuclear stockpile, Lawrence Livermore and other national laboratories are developing sophisticated supercomputer simulations to determine the effects of aging on nuclear weapons components as part of the National Nuclear Security Administration’s Stockpile Stewardship Program. NIF will be able to provide data for those simulations by replicating the conditions that exist inside a thermonuclear weapon. In addition, the Photon Science & Applications program is developing a number of innovative technologies for homeland security and national defense.

Energy for the Future

Where will the world’s energy come from when all the fossil fuels are gone? And how can we produce the energy we need without causing catastrophic climate change? At current growth rates, the world will exhaust its chief non-renewable energy resources – oil and natural gas – before the end of this century. Coal will last longer, but the carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases that are released when coal and other fossil fuels are burned could cause dramatic and potentially devastating changes in the Earth’s climate. By demonstrating the ability to attain fusion ignition in the laboratory, NIF will lay the groundwork for future decisions about fusion’s long-term potential as a safe, virtually unlimited energy source. Fusion, the same energy source that powers the stars, produces no greenhouse gases and is more environmentally benign than fossil-fuel or nuclear-fission-based energy.

Understanding the Universe

How did the universe come into being, and how did the stars and planets form? What happens in supernovas and black holes? Questions like these have intrigued humans since the dawn of history. By recreating conditions that exist naturally only in the interiors of stars, supernovae and giant planets, NIF will provide exciting new insights into what happened in the first nanoseconds of creation – the Big Bang – and will help us understand how the fundamental particles of matter coalesced into the stars, the planets and the elements that make life possible. NIF’s pioneering role in the physics of materials under extreme pressures and temperatures, known as high energy density physics, which will be made possible by the achievement of thermonuclear burn in the laboratory, has been recognized by the Board on Physics and Astronomy of the National Research Council as one of the keys to unlocking the secrets of the universe (Connecting Quarks with the Cosmos: Eleven Science Questions for the New Century). Other NIF programs promise breakthroughs in the use of lasers in medicine, radioactive and hazardous waste treatment, particle physics and X-ray and neutron science.