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In 2009, the first time that the National Ignition Facility (NIF) fired all 192 of its laser beams at a single point inside a vast, spherical target chamber, it was 60 times more energetic than any laser ever built. Now, 10 years and nearly 2,800 shots later, NIF still dominates the world of high-energy lasers by a factor of 10 and continues to help the Laboratory achieve its mission objectives, offering unparalleled laser performance and precision.
NIF is a testament to the scientific and technical excellence of the people working at Lawrence Livermore and our partners across the United States and around the world. From the beginning, the facility has fostered an elite workforce and generated far-reaching innovation that has allowed us to lead in many areas of science critical to the Department of Energy and its National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA). The feature article, National Ignition Facility Celebrates 10 Years of Operation, describes NIF’s success over the last decade and how our efforts support NNSA’s science-based Stockpile Stewardship Program (SSP) and advance a broad range of applications.
Twenty-five years ago, SSP was formally established to maintain the safety, security, and effectiveness of the U.S. nuclear deterrent in the absence of underground nuclear testing. NIF was built with this approach in mind, and the facility routinely creates extreme conditions that allow unprecedented experimental access to the physics of nuclear weapons. Data from these experiments materially contribute to life-extension programs that are under way, helping inform immediate decisions to ensure the longevity of today’s modernization projects. NIF data also validate the ever more complex and sophisticated simulations used for SSP.
Achieving ignition of a self-sustained nuclear fusion reaction is one of the most difficult grand challenges of our age. However, over the past 10 years, inertial confinement fusion (ICF) experiments at NIF have provided extensive insight into the most viable paths for making ignition a reality, which would open a gateway toward higher pressures, temperatures, and yields that are relevant to the weapons program. Although we continue to make significant progress, ignition is the one element of underground testing that has not yet been reconstituted.
The last decade has certainly demonstrated how dedication to mission and innovative thinking at NIF has led to scientific and technical breakthroughs. From the beginning, facility advancements enabled NIF to reach its designed laser energy of 1.8 megajoules (MJ). Continued enhancements resulted in NIF setting a new facility record in 2018, firing 2.15 MJ to its target chamber. Additional diagnostics have led to more data being measured from experiments. The Advanced Radiographic Capability, for example, which is built into the NIF laser, allows researchers to probe dense conditions of matter during experiments, providing more insight into the evolving plasmas created with NIF’s laser beams. Operational efficiencies have also led to an increased shot rate—NIF conducts approximately 400 shots per year. With more shots being made available, discovery science and national security applications have grown and contribute back to high-energy-density science and ICF programs.
Operating NIF and fulfilling the Laboratory’s missions require expertise that extends throughout the Laboratory, from physics and engineering to computation, safety, security, and operations. This team is further enhanced through NIF’s ability to attract talented engineers and scientists to Lawrence Livermore that replenish and broaden our capabilities. Our resulting laser advancements will enable new technologies that will help strengthen our country, such as advanced directed‑energy laser systems.
Recognizing the importance of NIF, other nations are building NIF-like facilities aimed at achieving ignition. We must maintain our lead in the face of this growing competition. National laboratories serve the United States through execution of their challenging missions. Over the last 10 years, we have made continued, substantive progress in areas essential to our national security mission. Through this demonstrated excellence and innovative spirit, we will continue to improve NIF’s capabilities to overcome challenges in the future and be prepared for what comes next.