The National Ignition Facility Is Born
OVER the last few months,
the National Ignition Facility (NIF) has begun its transition from
vast construction project to the largest laser experimental facility
in the world. Recent tests of the laser have demonstrated that
with just the first four beams operating, NIF is already the most
energetic laser ever built. When all 192 beams are blazing in 2008,
NIF’s extraordinary capabilities will make possible experiments
in fusion ignition, weapons physics, and basic science that many
researchers have anticipated for 50 years.
With the successful commissioning of these four beams,
NIF has made another, more subtle transition as well. Four years
ago, the project was widely viewed as having serious difficulties.
Today, those much publicized concerns are long gone. Not only is
the project back on track, but the laser is also performing spectacularly.
This turnaround would not have been possible without
the close working relationship of Laboratory scientists and engineers
with numerous industrial partners. The challenges associated with
building the world’s largest laser are enormous, particularly
in managing such a large, technically complex project, developing
laser and optical technologies, and constructing and aligning the
superclean environmental enclosures that contain the laser beams.
But over time, the team cleared one hurdle after another. The result
is that many of the components in NIF’s laser system represent
significant advancements of current technologies while other components
are entirely new—and they all work together as designed.
Two years ago, Project Manager Ed Moses conceived of
an imaginative and insightful strategy for reaching first light
on NIF—commissioning one group of four beams first. We called
it NIF Early Light, to show that at least one of every system in
the facility could operate in accordance with full performance
specifications. With its success, we would be sure that when all
construction is complete, the laser will operate at the level required.
As the article entitled The National Ignition
Facility Comes to Life explains, NIF is already meeting performance specifications.
Much like today’s supercomputers, NIF was built to be
a parallel system. A typical construction project proceeds linearly
from conceptual design through final design, construction, commissioning,
and turnover to the owner
for operation. With NIF, however, construction and commissioning
are continuing in parallel with operation
of the laser for physics experiments. Although we still have another
five years to go before the last optical system is installed, we
are already aiming the laser at targets in the target chamber for
The goal for NIF, of course, is to run successful experiments.
With just the first beams, NIF will begin
to make significant contributions to the nation’s Stockpile
Stewardship Program and to basic science in the areas of astrophysics,
hydrodynamics, material science, and plasma physics. Ultimately,
NIF is designed to demonstrate fusion ignition—the combining,
or fusing, of two light nuclei to form a new nucleus and release
energy from the nuclear reaction. NIF’s powerful array of
lasers will start the fusion process. With ignition experiments,
Laboratory scientists can examine the conditions associated with
the inner workings of nuclear weapons and the processes that power
the Sun and stars. Such experiments are a key element in the National
Nuclear Security Administration’s approach to maintaining
the nuclear stockpile. Ignition experiments will also enhance the
ability to eventually produce fusion energy for electrical power
We at the Laboratory are most appreciative of those who, four years
ago, had confidence in our ability to tackle the technical and
management challenges that were impeding progress on NIF. They
took a risk in allowing us to continue with the project. As NIF
comes to life as a mature, high-performing experimental facility,
we take pride in showing that their confidence was warranted.