National Ignition Facility makes history with record 500 terawatt shot

July 18, 2012

The preamplifiers of the National Ignition Facility are the first step in increasing the energy of laser beams as they make their way toward the target chamber. NIF recently achieved a 500 terawatt shot – 1,000 times more power than the United States uses at any instant in time. (Credit: Damien Jemison/LLNL)

Fifteen years of work by the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory‘s National Ignition Facility (NIF) team paid off on July 5 with a historic record-breaking laser shot. The NIF laser system of 192 beams delivered more than 500 trillion watts (terawatts or TW) of peak power and 1.85 megajoules (MJ) of ultraviolet laser light to its target.

Five hundred terawatts is 1,000 times more power than the United States uses at any instant in time, and 1.85 megajoules of energy is about 100 times what any other laser regularly produces today.

The shot validated NIF’s most challenging laser performance specifications set in the late 1990s when scientists were planning the world’s most energetic laser facility. Combining extreme levels of energy and peak power on a target in the NIF is a critical requirement for achieving one of physics’ grand challenges — igniting hydrogen fusion fuel in the laboratory and producing more energy than that supplied to the target.

“NIF is becoming everything scientists planned when it was conceived over two decades ago,” NIF Director Edward Moses said. “It is fully operational, and scientists are taking important steps toward achieving ignition and providing experimental access to user communities for national security, basic science and the quest for clean fusion energy.”

NIF is influencing the design of new giant laser facilities being built or planned in the United Kingdom, France, Russia, Japan and China.

Located at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, NIF is funded by the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), a semi-autonomous agency within the U.S. Department of Energy responsible for enhancing national security through the application of nuclear science to the nation’s national security enterprise.

NIF is the latest, and arguably the most sophisticated, addition to a number of critical stockpile stewardship facilities. It is the only facility with the potential to duplicate the actual phenomena that occur in the heart of a modern nuclear device — a goal that is critical to sustaining confidence that a return to underground nuclear testing remains unnecessary.

NIF also is providing unique experimental opportunities for scientists to enhance our understanding of the universe by creating the same extreme states of matter that exist in the centers of planets, stars and other celestial objects. Additionally, experiments at NIF are laying the groundwork to revolutionize energy production with fusion energy to provide abundant and sustainable clean energy.