The National Ignition Facility (NIF), located at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory near San Francisco, is the world’s largest and highest-energy laser. NIF’s 192 powerful laser beams, housed in a 10-story building the size of 3 football fields, can deliver more than 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. Experiments conducted on NIF make significant contributions to national and global security, could help pave the way to practical fusion energy, and further the nation’s leadership in basic science and technology and economic competitiveness.
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 enables scientists to 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.
Ignition experiments at NIF are advancing the science toward the eventual use of fusion as a safe, clean, and virtually unlimited energy source.
On July 5, 2012, NIF made history when its 192 beams delivered more than 500 trillion watts of peak power and 1.85 megajoules (MJ) of ultraviolet (UV) laser light to its target. That’s 1,000 times more power than the United States uses at any instant in time and 10 times more than any other laser facility regularly produces. In May 2018, the NIF laser system fired 2.15 MJ of UV energy to the Target Chamber, a 15 percent improvement over the facility’s 1.8-MJ design specification.
In 2017-18, several shots achieved a total fusion neutron yield of 1.7-1.9x1016 and 50-54 kilojoules of fusion energy output, which doubled the previous record set in 2014.
NIF users include researchers from Department of Energy national laboratories, universities, and many other U.S. and foreign research centers.
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 absorbed by the fuel to start the fusion reactions—more energy out than in. Achieving ignition is a key element in NIF’s mission of advancing high energy density science. Ignition will further the science of using inertial confinement fusion as a safe, clean source of energy.
NIF ignition experiments use a centimeter-sized cylinder called a hohlraum that contains a 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 (alpha particles) and neutrons (and extreme heat), creating conditions that exist only in the Sun, the stars, and a detonating nuclear weapon.
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 Grand Challenges, making it difficult to predict how soon 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 and the Target Bay and switchyard shielding.
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
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