National Ignition Facility
May 23, 2005 3:24 PM   Subscribe

The largest and most powerful laser facility ever designed is currently being constructed at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in Livermore, CA. I had an opportunity to tour this facility earlier this year, and the sheer magnitude of this engineering project is staggering. The precision required for ignition has been compared to "trying to hit the strike zone with a baseball from 350 miles away". Although the scientists and politicians responsible for the National Ignition Facility claim it will help lessen the danger of nuclear weapons, many critics argue it is merely an attempt to work around certain non-proliferation treaties.
posted by muddgirl (31 comments total)
From the second to last link:

Livermore Lab is already on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's "Superfund" list of most contaminated sites in the country. NIF will generate toxic and radioactive wastes; even its 'routine' operation will create pollution for the surrounding communities. The situation could be exacerbated by newly–planned experiments and the addition of materials with long–lived isotopes like plutonium.

Few scientists believe NIF will achieve its scientific objective of ignition, though it will reach energies, temperatures, and densities of interest to weapons designers. In essence, it's a machine to keep weapons designers busy at their deadly pursuits. NIF runs counter to the U.S.' disarmament obligation under Article VI of the Non-Proliferation Treaty. Many believe is violates Article 1 of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty as well. From conducting laser fireball experiments, to providing detailed analyses of mix, to studying new fusion weapon concepts to creating a test bed for weapons effects, NIF will push the envelope of nuclear weapons physics - and demonstrate once again that the United States will not practice the disarmament it so sanctimoniously (and forcibly) prescribes for others.

On the other hand, NIF's completion date has already been pushed back six years—to 2008. The NIF is not a "done deal." We can still stop it.

posted by muddgirl at 3:28 PM on May 23, 2005

Sorry, that's just too cool not to build. Kinda' like the atomic bomb.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 3:33 PM on May 23, 2005

It sounds suspiciously like the sort of large-scale weapons facility you see in Doom 3 and Unreal 2 :-)
posted by clevershark at 3:37 PM on May 23, 2005

From muddgirl's quote: conducting laser fireball experiments?!?

They're going to end up cracking the earth in two, I just know they will.
posted by marxchivist at 3:39 PM on May 23, 2005

Nice post.

I remember stumbling on photos of the construction a while ago and just being totally awed at the size of the whole thing, not to mention the complexity of the optics and beam paths.
posted by loquacious at 3:46 PM on May 23, 2005

What, no Death Star jokes yet?
posted by taursir at 4:30 PM on May 23, 2005

I just don't see how they're going to shrink 192 lasers in a 10m ball into a practical weapon.
posted by five fresh fish at 4:38 PM on May 23, 2005

What, no Death Star jokes yet?

"Meditate upon this, I will." // (yoda voice)

This was only a matter of time. But the greatest threat to America is from the grabby hands of our own military industrial complex.
posted by uni verse at 4:51 PM on May 23, 2005

I'm sorry, but a giant fireball creating laser is simply too cool to not build. It isn't commonly known, but there is a clause in all weapons treaties stating that the treaty is null and void for all weapons that are "really frick'n cool" (UN law, paragraph 13, subsection 10 of the Awesomeness Conventions)
posted by unreason at 4:51 PM on May 23, 2005

Wait, isn't this what Magneto was building before Spiderman got to him?
posted by reality at 4:52 PM on May 23, 2005

okay :D

i think most people will agree with me when i say: now witness the power of this fully armed and operational battle station!
posted by kliuless at 4:57 PM on May 23, 2005

Scary but kind of cool. I'd hate to be that eraser sized wad of hydrogen fuel.

Is anyone else channelling Real Genius? Now all we need is a giant ball of popcorn to put in Hathaway's house!
posted by fenriq at 4:57 PM on May 23, 2005

Very cool, thanks for the links.

And for the obligatory Star Wars reference: Commence primary ignition!
posted by Zonker at 5:18 PM on May 23, 2005

I'ts only gonna cost 3.5-5 billion dollars once complete? For sustainable (hot) fusion energy?

That's like two weeks in Iraq.

What the hell have we been doing?
posted by Balisong at 5:28 PM on May 23, 2005

For sustainable (hot) fusion energy?

This isn't an energy generator. When they say "sustained", they just mean that the fusion reaction will continue after the (very, very fast) laser pulse has ended. It will still take much more energy to start the reaction than will be yielded from the reaction.
posted by mr_roboto at 5:59 PM on May 23, 2005

I don't understand this stuff at all...just like I never understood my older brother, who does math at high school, I was a stoner musician; he had a slide rule on his belt.

Now, I play piano and teach poetry. I'm sure he gets what I do more than I get what he does.
posted by kozad at 6:55 PM on May 23, 2005

Five Fresh Fish, It not about converting the entire device into a weapon. The logic behind the science of this program may seem solid. To a lot of people it probably does.....the very same people that are working on this project.

The concept of ensuring a "safe and sustainable" nuclear arsenal is suspicious. I'm certain that the DOE will ensure that the U.S. arsenal does remain viable for the foreseeable future.

The real question that we should be asking : "Is maintaining a vast nuclear arsenal while developing new weapons types (sic. Reliable Replacement. ) in the best interests of the American people? If so, to what ends and what costs are reasonable in doing so?"

192 lasers in a massive cluster may be impractical for a weapon system. However, imagine a facility that utilizes a much smaller number of lasers that have a much higher output that can direct their beams in unison across a wide arc of sky. Now imagine a line of facilities spanning the U.S./Canadian border......In Alaska.....the Pacific islands of Samoa...Wake....Guam.....

You could redesign the Nimitz Class carry a mobile variant of this Laser array...under the protection of their conventional brethren the Carrier Battle Group.

This could very well become our shield.

... you only need a shield if you wish to strike with impunity.
posted by PROD_TPSL at 7:27 PM on May 23, 2005

I'ts only gonna cost 3.5-5 billion dollars once complete? For sustainable (hot) fusion energy?

That's like two weeks in Iraq.

What the hell have we been doing?

The presidents dad does not hold stock in a (hot) fusion energy company.
posted by Mr_Zero at 7:33 PM on May 23, 2005

This could very well become our shield.

I've assumed for a while that a viable missile defense system would be laser based. I'm sure there are other projects like this that are not public...
posted by MillMan at 7:55 PM on May 23, 2005

For sustainable (hot) fusion energy?
Talking to the optics engineer who conducted the tour I took, it's not really sustainable - each blast of the lasers will only produce 1 'extra' high-energy neutron, and the system will require 2-4 hours (if I remember correctly) between blasts to recover. The engineer I spoke to said that the purpose of the facility is not in any way to study sustainable fusion for consumer energy purposes, but to study fusion as a nuclear reaction in itself.

Politics aside, this is such a fascinating project from an engineering standpoint, considering this facility was designed 10 years ago, and has been upgraded continuously throughout the construction process. Another complicating factor is that, after a certain point, the laser bays had to be kept in a clean room environment while construction was occurring all around them. Also, the dock for each focusing lens (the laser beams start out as approximately 6'x4' squares and are focused down to a pinpoint) was designed to be pre-aligned, since the lens can't be aligned once they're in the bays.

I would highly recommend the tour if you get the chance.
posted by muddgirl at 8:15 PM on May 23, 2005

muddgirl, thanks for the cool info on the tour, its easily close enough to buzz up and do one weekend.
posted by fenriq at 9:13 PM on May 23, 2005

... you only need a shield if you wish to strike with impunity.

Which may be a catchy jingle for a protest march but doesn't really make a lot of sense.

You might also want a shield if there are people out there who don't care if you hit back. I'm not saying there are or that a missle shield is worth the money, but that sentence was inane.
posted by obfusciatrist at 10:02 PM on May 23, 2005

Can you point to information on how to take a tour? I'm probably missing an obvious link above but since I'm only 8 minutes away this would be a cool afternoon.
posted by obfusciatrist at 10:06 PM on May 23, 2005

the laser beams start out as approximately 6'x4' squares

Does this not imply that they're using 6'x4' crystals? That alone is pretty freakin' cool.
posted by five fresh fish at 10:14 PM on May 23, 2005

>This could very well become our shield.


In a foreword, Peter Teets, under-secretary of the US Air Force, asks: "What will we do 10 years from now when American lives are put at risk because an adversary chooses to leverage the global positioning system of perhaps the Galileo constellation to attack American forces with precision?"

The conference, on the "Future of Transatlantic Military Space Relations", was held at London's Royal United Services Institute, this month. A senior European delegate said: "The Americans were very calm. They made it clear that they would attempt what they called reversible action, but, if necessary, they would use irreversible action."

The US would first try unilaterally to jam Gallileo's signals, but if this failed it would use attack satellites to destroy one or all of its units, in an unprecedented Star Wars-style raid.

There's lots of potential. Even a land based weapon could do the trick, creating "neat" "cool" "awesome" displays in space, near satellites belonging to someone else.

Nice links, by the way. Thanks.
posted by gsb at 2:21 AM on May 24, 2005

Now imagine a line of facilities spanning the U.S./Canadian border......In Alaska.....the Pacific islands of Samoa...Wake....Guam.....

Imagine one of these in space.
posted by fshgrl at 5:25 AM on May 24, 2005

I suggest they call it the Alan Parsons Project.
posted by OneOliveShort at 7:08 AM on May 24, 2005

National Ignition Facility -- that name alone ought to inflame the tinfoil-beanie crowd.
posted by alumshubby at 7:39 AM on May 24, 2005

Wow, I'm really suprised at how this post is being framed. To most people, the Z-pinch is thought of as something to do research into fusion, although of course researching fusion in general will be a big help in trying to create a sustainable fusion reaction.

I belive the newest iteration will be powerfull enough to create a fusion reaction that outputs more energy then it requires to set it off.
posted by delmoi at 7:57 AM on May 24, 2005

I forgot to mention in my last comment that you have to know someone at Lawrence Livermore to get a tour - you have to go through security clearance and all that. I'd suggest shmoozing with the locals or trying to organize a group tour of some sort.

I'd like to make it clear that I'm all for this facility and for fusion research, but I think it's sad that really cool scientific instruments like this are commissioned and used for military purposes first, and other cool scientific purposes second.
posted by muddgirl at 10:20 AM on May 24, 2005

Just one small step in the defense of our planet against Venus. Terra must prevail.
posted by MiltonRandKalman at 3:43 PM on May 24, 2005

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