Sunday, May 31, 2009

A Trip to the NIF

I've been in Livermore, California for the last two days so that I could attend the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory Open House, celebrating the dedication of the National Ignition Facility.

My brother, Jim, is a programmer there, so he took me and a few other friends and relations on the grand tour. The lab had an impressive set-up - lots of informative displays, people standing by to answer questions, and best of all, the laser itself.

The beam starts out as one tiny diode laser pulse and a few coils of fiber optics. Then they split it into 196 beams and amplify each one a few million times. Each beam gets sent to a path about one foot square and sent through these immense flash-bulb chambers that look like a lightning strike when they go off. Where do they get the power for the flash bulbs? In the basement, an army of monstrous capacitors, rows upon rows, charge up in about sixty seconds and then release all that power so quick it makes the bundles of two-inch coax writhe like snakes as it carries the current to the flash bulbs.

Once the laser beam is pumped up by the flash bulbs, it speeds on to the switch yard. The beams are directed up, down, and all around so that they will focus and converge on one tiny point at the center of a huge ball of metal and concrete - the target chamber.

After walking through this gigantic facility, the size of three football fields, seeing all those flash lamps and capacitors, all that pink neodymium-doped phosphate glass and KDP crystal, and realizing that all this energy is going to be focused onto something the size of a coriander seed - I believe they could fuse some atoms with this thing.

1 comment:

Kathy said...

the anticipation is HUGE! will this baby work? i am holding my breath... i'm glad you got to go, becka! you were the first one i thought of when jim told us about the open house. i suggested that he invite you, & i'm glad it worked out. i thought about you on saturday, feeling happy that you & jim & jon were getting to spend some time together doing something fun & exciting. see you soon!