LLNL is a classified national lab, so I had to send in my personal information for a background check weeks ahead to obtain the proper security clearance. The lab is so secured that no cell phones, cameras, video cameras, or any electronics were allowed beyond the guarded fenced surrounding the facility. Basically, after I picked up my visitor badge outside the fence, I become completely isolated from the outside world. I'd like to draw your attention to the blue casing hanging above the badge. Any guesses on what that might be? It is a radiation sensor. Although I had one of these badges when I was at the Los Alamos National Lab in 2003, I never had one with a radiation sensor, because I was working in the Machine Learning Group under CCS-3 Division, which is safely shielded far away from all radioactive materials.
Alright, let's get on with the tour. Stop #1: NIF. As we arrived at the NIF, we saw a big sign saying "Bringing star power to earth." Let me explain what that means. The NIF is a nuclear fusion research facility that houses 192 lasers, including four of the most powerful lasers in the world. Using the Inertial Confinement Fusion technology developed at LLNL, these lasers are used to ignite a fusion reaction (at a temperature of 100,000,000 degrees) that creates a miniature sun (a medium sized star) inside a 10 meter spherical target chamber (see photo from NIF). The fusion chain reaction in this miniature sun will then generate clean energy much like the sun has power life on earth for millions of years. This animation by NIF explains how these lasers work.
Current nuclear power plants use nuclear fission technology, which produces a radioactive byproduct that remains hazardous for millennia and can be used in nuclear weapons. However, the byproduct of fusion is just Helium-4, a perfectly clean, safe, non-reactive noble gas. Moreover, fusion technology could eliminate our dependence on fossil fuels, because fusion power is much more efficient. The fusion energy released from 1 gram of hydrogen fuel is equivalent to roughly 2 tons of coal!
The NIF is a colossal project! Commissioned in 1993, the construction of NIF began in 1997, took 12 years and $3.5 billion. The last of the 192 laser beams were completed on March 31, 2009. I feel so privileged to be able to see the NIF in its entirety so soon after its completion. Currently, hundreds of engineers and scientists at NIF are using simulation shots to test all the lasers, the diagnostics, and the control system. There is absolutely zero tolerance for errors. Future experiments are aimed at replicating the nuclear ignition process reliably and rapidly enough so that it can be a viable source of commercial energy.
Are you excited? As a scientist, I'm totally thrilled! You may admire the futuristic look of this magnificent structure, but what I see is the culmination of a Herculean scientific endeavor. To me, the NIF is a product of thousands of passionate scientists and engineers from all sorts of backgrounds who have dedicated their lives to working together for the well being of humanity. I just couldn't help but be in awe when I think about the difficulties they must have overcome to reach this stage.
Let's save some of my enthusiasm for later. This is the first time I have posted something unrelated to social analytics, but I thought it might be interesting for you to get a peek at the life of a scientist. Let me know how you like my little adventure. Stay tuned at mich8elwu.