Dawn of a New Era of Scientific Discovery
WITH the completion of the National Ignition Facility (NIF) in 2009, the international science community gained an important tool for pursuing fundamental scientific research. As the article "At the Frontiers of Fundamental Science Research" describes, NIF is maturing rapidly as an experimental facility and emerging as a premier capability for fundamental science. International research teams are preparing or already conducting science experiments on NIF, the world’s largest and most energetic laser by far. These experiments are pushing the frontiers of science in a wide range of areas including astrophysics, nuclear physics, planetary physics, and the study of materials at extreme conditions.
NIF experiments have already demonstrated total laser energies up to 1.6 megajoules, 60 times greater than any operating laser. These experiments have been conducted with unmatched precision, repeatability, and reliability. NIF has also proven enormously flexible. For example, its 192 laser pulses can be customized according to the characteristics of the material being compressed to achieve the desired pressure, density, or temperature conditions for the experiment. More than 50 diagnostic instruments, many developed specifically for the giant facility, provide exceptional characterization of experiments.
The National Ignition Campaign (NIC) has played a major role in developing NIF as an experimental facility in support of stockpile stewardship, fundamental science, and other Laboratory missions. Part of the nation’s Stockpile Stewardship Program, NIC is an international effort to demonstrate inertial confinement fusion ignition in a laboratory setting. With the accomplishment of ignition, we will possess an experimental capability to re-create the conditions that exist in stars and thermonuclear weapons, opening a new class of research—the study of burning plasmas. The fundamental science experiments in preparation or at the beginning stages are also showing promising results. What’s more, there is a healthy interplay between the two research areas, with fundamental science providing new ideas and techniques for stockpile stewardship investigations.
NIF users include researchers from Department of Energy national laboratories, universities, and other U.S. and foreign research centers. Workshops held in the past several years have enabled the scientific community to learn more about fundamental science on NIF. For example, in May 2011, more than 100 scientific leaders from countries worldwide attended a workshop to discuss basic research directions for NIF during the next decade. A workshop report published in November identified the scientific challenges and research directions for NIF-driven experiments in astrophysics, nuclear physics, materials science, planetary physics, and beam and plasma physics.
Another element in our ongoing effort to build a vigorous international user community is the NIF User Group, which will hold its next meeting at Lawrence Livermore in February. Some attendees have already participated in NIF experiments. Other researchers will be visiting for the first time to hear presentations regarding experiments on NIF and related facilities, including the Laboratory’s Jupiter laser. Together, NIF and Jupiter provide the world’s most sophisticated set of high-energy-density research tools located at one site.
One of the exciting avenues for fundamental research is astronomy, where NIF brings a new experimental dimension to existing observational efforts. With NIF, we can “explore” planets by duplicating the extreme conditions found in their interiors. In late 2011, researchers conducted the first university-based planetary science experiments on NIF, in which a diamond sample was compressed to a record pressure of 50 megabars (50 million times Earth’s atmospheric pressure). By replicating the conditions that exist in the giant gas planets of our solar system and possibly the cores of recently discovered massive planets, the experiments will help scientists better understand how these planets might have formed billions of years ago. Experiments to look at the hydrodynamics of supernovas are also under way. Proposed experiments under consideration could even create a virtual time machine, permitting us to “travel” back to the big bang and “observe” some aspects of the birth of the universe.
Fundamental science research at NIF is in its early stages. Judging from the progress made and the success we’ve seen in this first generation of experiments, the next decade will indeed be an exciting time of scientific discovery at NIF.