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Audio Slideshow: Livermore Labs unveils super laser

National Ignition Facility dedicates a project years in the making, in which 192 lasers can generate roughly 1,000 times the electricity produced by the U.S. power grid.

A correction was made to this story. See below for details.

LIVERMORE, Calif.--The National Ignition Facility at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory is a blast--literally.

I was lucky enough to join the few thousand people who were allowed Saturday to tour the world's largest laser system, which is located in this bucolic valley about an hour's drive from San Francisco.

The $3.5 billion facility was dedicated Friday by a host of dignitaries, including California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. But family members and friends of lab employees were allowed to tour the NIF last weekend, many of whom started lining up early and waited more than an hour in a serpentine, Disneyland-like line to get into the 10-story-tall facility.

The NIF sports 192 lasers whose beams start out about the size of a 1-gallon gas can and are then filtered and amplified through optics and mirrors and simultaneously fired at a small beryllium sphere filled with hydrogen isotopes. The hydrogen atoms then fuse into helium, releasing thermonuclear energy equivalent to temperatures at the core of stars, or about 180 million degrees Fahrenheit.

The lab said that in about three billionths of a second, the lasers create a pulse of ultraviolet light energy of 1.8 million joules. At its peak, it generates 500 trillion watts, roughly 1,000 times the electricity produced by the U.S. power grid.

The tour took us through the entire apparatus, including a peek at the firing target chamber at the system's core.

Unfortunately, the taking of individual photographs was verboten at Saturday's tour. Cameras and cell phones were prohibited from the grounds, and I wasn't going to even think about messing with the rules. Anyone who has ever been near this place knows its reputation for security--ask Martin Sheen; he is intimately familiar with the lab's security.

However, my colleague James Martin attended the dedication on Friday, when he was allowed to take the photographs featured in the audio slideshow below.

During my tour, I overheard a gentleman tell his son that this is the kind of place Hollywood comes to get its ideas. Despite comparisons to something you might expect to find at the core of the Death Star and comments about phase conjugate target tracking systems, this mega-tool has generated a lot less fear and paranoia than the Large Hadron Collider.

While much of the NIF attention is focused on expanding the nature of the universe and the origin of stars, the stated primary mission is keeping tabs on the country's aging stockpile of nuclear weapons.

The NIF is also expected to create clean energy based on the heavy isotopes of hydrogen, a virtually inexhaustible resource on Earth. If it succeeds, the lab expects to be able to take one gallon of seawater and create the equivalent energy of 300 gallons of gasoline.

Correction, 12:17 p.m. PDT: This story initially gave an incorrect figure for the thermonuclear energy produced by the NIF laser system. The correct temperature is 180 million degrees Fahrenheit.