February 6, 2019
Excerpted from an article by Dan Linehan in the December 2018 issue of Science & Technology Review.
The 192 laser beams of the massive National Ignition Facility converge at the center of its giant, spherical Target Chamber through 48 symmetrically distributed portholes. Interspersed among these portholes is an array of other ports used for equipment with functions ranging from holding and positioning fusion targets to detecting what happens after the targets are hit by the laser beams.
Although the Target Chamber is 10 meters in diameter—the size of a small hot air balloon—gaining access to its outer wall proves challenging because of ever-increasing congestion. A majority of the nearly 200 ports are already in use, leaving only a small fraction unclaimed and unobstructed. As the variety of experiments running on NIF increases, so does the demand placed on this limited and valuable real estate.
Now, leading-edge simulation technologies are helping researchers go beyond reality to help answer the question of exactly what is possible at NIF. Considering the facility’s enormous complexity and demanding requirements—as well as the power and energy involved with experiments and the potential hazards that must be safely contained—methods that more effectively answer this question also help NIF achieve its myriad operational goals.
Bruno Van Wonterghem, NIF’s operations manager, must ensure the facility is up and running around the clock for current users and is well prepared for future experiments and improvements. He explains, “As we fill up seemingly every cubic centimeter of space around the Target Chamber, it gets harder and harder to determine exactly where new equipment will go and how we will operate and maintain it all. Turning to virtual and augmented reality to evaluate scenarios ahead of time gives us insight that we never had before.”
These two approaches differ in that virtual reality (VR) is a completely immersive experience in which everything the user sees is simulated, similar to playing a video game. In contrast, augmented reality (AR) superimposes computerized images over the user’s real-life field of view. Besides using VR and AR for practical engineering and mechanical applications to maintain and expand operations, NIF also uses these computerized visualization tools to give hands-on, realistic experiences that connect people to a realm that is ordinarily out of reach.
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