The National Ignition Facility (NIF), now nearing completion at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL), is the world's largest and highest-energy laser system. With all of its 192 laser beamlines now fully operational, NIF has demonstrated an infrared (1,053-nm) laser energy capability of 4.255 megajoules, more than 60 times the energy of any other laser system. When NIF's infrared energy is converted to 1.8 megajoules of ultraviolet (351-nm) energy and converges on a bb-sized target of deuterium and tritium in about 20 nanoseconds, 500 trillion watts of power will compress and heat the target to the point where the hydrogen nuclei fuse and "ignite" in the world's first controlled thermonuclear reaction–-releasing more energy than the laser energy required to initiate the reaction.
NIF is an experimental cornerstone of the National Nuclear Security Administration's Stockpile Stewardship Program (SSP) for maintaining the safety and reliability of the nation's nuclear deterrent without nuclear testing. NIF also will provide the basis for future decisions about fusion's long-term potential as a clean, safe and virtually boundless energy source; and it will enable unprecedented research in astrophysics, materials science and a variety of other disciplines. NIF is the only SSP facility that can achieve fusion ignition with energy gain, allowing the study of this process, which is an important feature of all modern US nuclear weapons. NIF's high energy density experiments will be used to provide data relating to stockpiled nuclear weapons, and to provide understanding of many aspects of the physics of nuclear weapons so that sophisticated three-dimensional computer models being developed for NNSA's Advanced Simulation and Computing Program (ASC) can be validated. NIF is also important for attracting, training, and retaining the best scientific talent for the future stewardship of the nation's nuclear stockpile.
In addition to its SSP mission, NIF is an important facility for the study of inertial fusion energy, laboratory astrophysics, materials science and nuclear weapon effects. NIF's 192 energetic laser beams can produce conditions in materials at hundreds of millions of degrees and billions of atmospheres of pressure. These conditions exist naturally only at the centers of planets and stars (thus NIF's goal of "creating a star on Earth") and in exploding nuclear weapons. NIF experiments already have demonstrated that its lasers are capable of producing the energy levels needed to achieve ignition. When construction is completed by March of 2009, additional experiments will enhance understanding of the processes that are required to ensure fusion. A careful course of research, using many different diagnostic techniques, will be followed along the path to the first attempts at ignition in 2010. NIF experiments will include weapons-relevant material high-pressure equation of state experiments and laser-plasma interaction experiments. The results from these and other planned experiments are useful for both basic science and stockpile stewardship needs. Both unclassified and classified experiments are capable of being conducted on NIF. Efforts are also under way to develop a short-pulse capability on NIF for petawatt power levels.