The National Ignition Facility (NIF), located at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, is the world’s largest laser. NIF’s 192 powerful laser beams, housed in a 10-story building the size of 3 football fields, can deliver nearly 2 million joules of ultraviolet laser energy in billionth-of-a-second pulses onto a target about the size of a pencil eraser. NIF became operational in March 2009.
NIF enables scientists to create extreme states of matter, including temperatures of 100 million degrees and pressures that exceed 100 billion times Earth’s atmosphere. NIF supports national security, fundamental science, energy security, and national competitiveness missions.
The total cost for NIF including development, vendors, capital, installation, and commissioning was about $3.5 billion.
As a cornerstone of the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA)’s stockpile stewardship program, NIF scientists conduct experiments necessary to ensure America’s nuclear weapons stockpile remains safe, secure, and reliable without underground testing. NIF is the only NNSA facility with the potential to duplicate all the phenomena that occur in the heart of a modern nuclear device.
NIF provides unique experimental opportunities to enhance our understanding of the universe by creating the same states of high-energy-density matter that exist in the centers of planets, stars, and other celestial objects. For example, with NIF, we can “explore” planets by duplicating the extreme conditions found in their interiors.
Experiments at NIF are laying the groundwork to provide the nation with abundant clean energy by using lasers to ignite fusion fuel.
On July 5, 2012, NIF made history when its 192 beams delivered more than 500 trillion watts of peak power and 1.85 megajoules of ultraviolet laser light to its target. That’s 1,000 times more power than the United States uses at any instant in time and nearly 100 times more than any other laser facility regularly produces.
NIF users include researchers from Department of Energy national laboratories, universities, and other U.S. and foreign research centers.
NIF ignition experiments use a centimeter-sized holder called a hohlraum that contains a plastic capsule filled with deuterium and tritium (hydrogen isotopes) fuel. Laser beams converge at the top and bottom of the 10-meter-diameter target chamber and deposit their energy inside the hohlraum. The x-rays created when the laser beams strike the hohlraum walls compress the deuterium and tritium fuel, generating helium nuclei and neutrons (and extreme heat), creating conditions that exist only in the sun, stars, and a detonating nuclear weapon.
Ignition occurs when the energy liberated from the extreme heating and compression of the NIF fusion fuel equals or is greater than the amount of energy the 192 laser beams deliver to the target to start the fusion reactions. Achieving ignition and energy gain is one of NIF’s chief missions. Ignition will prove the scientific feasibility of inertial confinement fusion as a clean source of energy.
Precision ignition experiments on NIF began in May 2011 and have since produced unprecedented high-energy-density environments. A large body of scientific knowledge and major new experimental, diagnostic, and target manufacturing capabilities continue to be developed and validated. Achieving ignition is one of humankind’s greatest scientific challenges, making it difficult to predict an exact date when it will happen.
No. While the temperatures and pressures involved in creating a controlled fusion reaction are extreme, NIF is designed to make certain that the process is completely safe. The ignition “event” is very small—about the diameter of a human hair—and lasts for only a few trillionths of a second. The energy released is limited by the very small amount of fuel in the target capsule and is completely contained within the target chamber.
A NIF target capsule is smaller than a peppercorn and contains less than 1 milligram of tritium, corresponding to about half the amount of radioactivity contained in a tritium-powered “Exit” sign. Even though the amount of tritium is minuscule, state-of-the-art tritium handling capabilities ensure the tritium is properly controlled.
NIF is a national user facility that is expected to have a lifetime of at least 30 years.
Yes. Requests for public tours should be directed to the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory Public Affairs Office at (925) 422-4599. Tours are limited to persons 18 years of age or older.
We are always interested in attracting great talent to join our team. You can find information about current job openings, internships, and postdoctoral opportunities on the LLNL Careers Site