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New facility pushes the frontiers of science

Jeff Wisoff, Principal Deputy Principal Associate Director NIF & Photon Science/Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory: The National Ignition Facility (NIF) is the world's largest laser. It's now operational, and in this chamber behind me here, we're going to recreate a star here on Earth. The basic idea is to take the same processes that power the universe, which is fusion, and to recreate that in a laboratory setting here on Earth.

The way most people think about nuclear energy today is they think about fission, where you take large atoms and you break them into smaller atoms and you get energy released as part of that process. What we're going to do is actually a simpler process in one respect - we're going to take small atoms, like hydrogen and combine them together to make helium and that is what goes on in the stars and powers the universe right now.

The basic idea is to take the same processes that power the universe, which is fusion and to recreate that in a laboratory setting here on Earth. The control room here at the NIF looks an awful lot like a NASA control room on purpose because it was actually modeled after the same concept of a NASA control room. The difference is, instead of sending people into space, we're going to bring the stars here to earth. We're going to bring the power of the stars, we're going to make it in this target chamber behind us and then we're going to harness that energy and use it for the benefit of our national security, for enabling clean energy here on earth and for advancing frontier science.

The way the National Ignition Facility is going to create a star is we're going to take all of the energy that we have, which is five hundred terawatts, that's more than is on the entire world's electric grid during the twentieth billionths of a second that we actually have the laser pulse, and we're going to focus that into a very tiny volume and what that does is it creates x-rays that will bathe a fuel capsule.

The outer part of that fuel capsule will blow off and like the exhaust of a rocket pushes a rocket forward, it will push the fuel in at a million miles per hour, it will create temperatures of a hundred million degrees centigrade and pressures of a hundred billion atmospheres, which is what you need in order to get hydrogen atoms to fuse together to form helium and that releases energy. 

It's essentially what Einstein told us - E=MC2 and when these hydrogen atoms become helium atoms, there's a small mass change and that small mass change, when converted to energy, results in a significant amount of energy. And that fusion energy is clean because it produces very little nuclear waste, it's almost inexhaustible supplied because the basic materials for the fuel come out of sea water and when you imagine having a limitless supply of energy, imagine how our economy could change...how we could change the world in terms of the resources available not only to ourselves, but to developing countries as well.

The success of this laser is really owed to the entire laboratory they were all part of building it. And in fact, the University of California has been a big part of our history through many big laser programs to reach this culmination of NIF...and so I think we are on the cusp of achieving a search that's been going on for fifty years. I think that this facility, when it gets ignition, will be looked at in the future as the turning point in the discussion about fusion energy and clean power on the earth. I think it will be looked at the Wright Brothers plane ushering in the era of flight. This will be ushering in the era of fusion energy, which really will enable limitless supply of energy here on Earth.