Tuesday, March 10, 2009

World's largest laser gears up for ignition experiments

(PhysOrg.com) -- Construction of the National Ignition Facility (NIF), the world's largest and highest-energy laser system, was essentially completed on Feb. 26, when technicians at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL), where the laser is located, fired the first full system shot to the center of the NIF target chamber.

The test was the first time all 192 laser beams converged simultaneously in the 10-meter-diameter chamber. NIF has met all of its project completion criteria except for official certification of project completion by the U.S. Department of Energy, due by March 31.

An average of 420 joules of ultraviolet laser energy, known as 3-omega, was achieved for each beamline, for a total energy of more than 80 kilojoules (a joule is the energy needed to lift a small apple one meter against the Earth's gravity).

The energy level will be increased during the next several months, and when all NIF lasers are fired at full energy, they will deliver 1.8 megajoules of ultraviolet energy to a BB-sized target in a 20-nanosecond shaped laser pulse, generating 500 trillion watts of peak power -- more than the peak electrical generating power of the entire United States. This is considered more than enough energy to fuse the hydrogen isotopes of deuterium and tritium in the target into helium nuclei (alpha particles) and yield considerably more energy in the process than was required to initiate the reaction.

The last of NIF's 6,206 various optical-mechanical and controls system modules, called "line replaceable units" or LRUs, was installed on Jan. 26. The first LRU, a flashlamp, was installed on Sept. 26, 2001.

Workers have aligned and tuned NIF's final optical assemblies, which focus and convert the frequency of the project's 192 laser beams as they enter the target chamber and converge on the tiny target. Experimental systems and diagnostics are also being installed. Software for the integrated computer control system, which handles shot automation, has been completed.

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