Model of target chamber

Deep inside the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in Livermore, Calif., sits the National Ignition Facility (NIF). The giant system sends 192 laser beams 1,500 meters from a master oscillator to a target chamber where the 192 beams are focused on a tiny fuel pellet. The idea? To demonstrate that laser fusion is possible--and a potential future source of clean energy.

In just 20 billionths of a second, the NIF's lasers deliver a payload of 500 trillion watts of power, more than 500 times the total amount of power created on the global power grid in the same amount of time.

This is a model of the target chamber that holds the actual fuel pellet target. The giant NIF system funnels the 192 laser beams into the chamber using a complex infrastructure of power amplifiers, mirrors, and more.

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NIF overview

A schematic for the National Ignition Facility at the Lawrence Livermore National Lab. Each beam originates at a master oscillator and is amplified as it's sent on a back-and-forth journey through a pre-amplifier module, a power amplifier, a main amplifier, and then through the power amplifier again. The beam then runs through a switchyard and finally hits the target chamber.

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Laser bay

A look straight down a laser bay at the National Ignition Facility. In just 5 millionths of a second, the system transforms one-billionth of a joule of laser beam energy to 4 million joules, an increase of a factor of more than 1 quadrillion. (According to Wikipedia, a joule is defined as the work required to continuously produce 1 watt of power for one second.)

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Inside the target chamber

A view inside the National Ignition Facility's actual target chamber, a space easily big enough for technicians to stand inside.

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Nanojoules to megajoules

As this sticker on a door in the NIF suggests, the system transforms a laser beam with a billionth of a joule of energy into 192 beams with a total of 4 million joules, more than a quadrillion times the original energy.

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KDP crystal

Scientists at the NIF cut a potassium dihydrogen phosphate (KDP) crystal like this into a series of 40-centimeter-square plates. The plates become part of a system of more than 600 large aperture crystal components used for optical switches and frequency converters that help boost the original single laser beam to 192 beamlines.

The Lawrence Livermore National Lab came up with a quick-growth process in which it grows KDP crystals like this one in about two months.

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NIF control room

The control room at the NIF on a slow day. During a laser shoot, the room would likely be full.

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National Ignition Facility

An exterior look at the National Ignition Facility at the Lawrence Livermore National Lab. Scientists at the facility are attempting to demonstrate that laser fusion is possible, and hope the process can someday be used to generate clean energy.

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Kill switch

Each work station in the NIF control room has a red emergency button that can be used if someone sees something, such as a person inside a laser bay, that could make a shot of the laser dangerous.

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Little red target

Placed at the center of the target chamber is one of these tiny fuel pellets, which is imploded with laser fusion. The idea is to show that amplifying a low-power laser beam can create huge amounts of carbon-free energy.

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Injection laser

According to the NIF, though single lasers end up as 192 beams, each laser shot inside the National Ignition Facility originates from a single laser oscillator like this. It is used to generate one low-power pulse, which is then split and amplified to approximately a nanojoule. It is then transported via fiber optic cables to a series of 48 pre-amplifier modules. Then, the 48 beams are again split, this time four ways on their way to being injected into the 192 main beamlines.

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Many bundles

The single laser beam, which begins no thicker than a human hair, is amplified and split into 192 beams, each of which is 18 inches wide. This illustrates the final product of a NIF shot.

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Laser glass

The NIF uses "neodymium doped" phosphate laser glass to amplify lasers.

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Huge laser bay

On the left side of this image, it's possible to see two NIF workers walking through a laser bay, making it easy to sense the scale of the facility.

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Pulse shaping

An NIF computer illustrates the characteristics of a shot, in which a single laser beam is turned into 192 beams.

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CAMS

Here is the inside of the Center for Accelerator Mass Spectrometry at the Lawrence Livermore National Lab. CAMS, as it's known, employs giant magnets to filter out elements to determine how much Carbon-14 a substance contains, a measurement that can help scientists determine things like its age.

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Radiation area

A sign inside the Center for Accelerator Mass Spectrometry indicates a risk of radiation.

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Injector magnet

This injector magnet is used to bend a negative ion beam by 90 degrees so scientists in the Center for Accelerator Mass Spectrometry can can choose which mass they want to isolate.

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Analyzing magnet

This analyzing magnet is intended for bending positive ion beams, a process that separates the beams' different carbon masses. Carbon-14 shoots down the beam line's center to a second filtering magnet and eventually reaches the Carbon-14 detector.

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Ion gauge

The light seen here is an ion gauge, and is used to measure negative pressure, otherwise known as a vacuum.

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NIF owl

At the National Ignition Facility, a family of owls lives high up on the building's exterior. Here, one of the owls is seen looking back at some visitors.

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