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When the world's most powerful laser facility flicks the switch on its first full-scale experiments later this month, a tiny star will be born on Earth.
The National Ignition Facility (NIF) in California aims to demonstrate the feasibility of nuclear fusion, the reaction at the heart of the Sun and a potentially abundant, clean energy source for the planet.
But whilst many eyes at the facility will be locked on the goal of satisfying humanity's energy demands, many scientists hope to answer other fundamental questions for mankind.
"In recreating the process of fusion it was always understood that we could pursue three areas of interest and value," explained Dr Erik Storm of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL), the home of NIF.
First and foremost, NIF has been built for national security purposes, to study the conditions that exist in nuclear explosions and the way that nuclear weapons perform.
"That gives you an ability to maintain a credible nuclear deterrent in the absence of underground nuclear testing," said Dr Storm.
"Then, we can study the physics of fusion - can you make a fusion power plant here on our planet? And we can do basic physics and planetary science."
Scientists have been working to achieve self-sustaining nuclear fusion and energy gain in the laboratory for more than half a century. When the National Ignition Facility (NIF) begins ignition experiments at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) in 2010, that long-sought goal will be much closer to realization.
NIF's 192 giant lasers, housed in a ten-story building the size of three football fields, will deliver at least 60 times more energy than any previous laser system. When all of its beams are fully operational, NIF will focus nearly two million joules of ultraviolet laser energy on a tiny target in the center of its target chamber – creating conditions similar to those that exist only in the cores of stars and giant planets and inside a nuclear weapon. The resulting fusion reaction will release many times more energy than the laser energy required to initiate the reaction.
Experiments conducted on NIF will make significant contributions to national and global security, could lead to practical fusion energy, and will help the nation maintain its leadership in basic science and technology. The project is a national collaboration among government, industry and academia and many industrial partners throughout the nation.
Programs in the NIF & Photon Science Directorate draw extensively on expertise from across LLNL, including the Physical and Life Sciences, Engineering, Computation and Weapons and Complex Integration directorates. This goal is a scientific Grand Challenge that only a national laboratory such as Lawrence Livermore can accomplish.