The National Ignition Facility’s (NIF), most gigantic laser globally, has been around for more than a decade and has contributed vastly to science through its enormous power.

The gigantic device was completed in March 2009 at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) in Livermore, California. The overall facility occupies a ten-story structure the size of three football fields.

According to Live Science, more than a decade since it became operational, NIF has proven a versatile contributor to research science.

“Running an experiment at NIF is not like running an experiment at any other laser facility,” said Jena Meineck, a plasma physicist. She is researching the origin of magnetic fields in the universe at the National Ignition Facility. 

“The conditions obtained are so extreme that, to some extent, you have no idea what to expect. All you know is that something special is about to happen,” Meineck continued.

The Southwest view of the National Ignition Facility at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, taken on Oct. 7, 2013 (U.S. Department of Energy/Flickr)

For its massive capacity, NIF is applicable for studying weapons and unlocking space mysteries. 

It features 192 laser beams, each focusing all of its energy on a tiny target less than a centimeter in size and transmits more than 500 trillion watts of peak power and 1.8 megajoules of ultraviolet laser light at it, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. It is powerful enough to replicate the extreme conditions found within stars as well as nuclear explosions.

NIF also has the ability to create the extraordinary conditions required to ignite nuclei fusion, the same reaction that powers the sun and the stars. According to Live Science, such an environment entails temperatures of 180 million degrees Fahrenheit (100 million Celsius) and pressures 100 billion times that of the Earth’s atmosphere.

NIF’s target chamber, 1,000,000-lb., 30-ft-diameter, taken on Oct.7, 2013 (U.S. Department of Energy/Flickr)

With high potential to be an inexhaustible source of green energy, scientists have been spending decades trying to grasp the ability to manage the process. Yet, so far, only the massively destructive fusion interactions that fuel thermonuclear weapons have found a practical application.

Hence, while devoting most of its activities to developing and testing weapons, 8% of NIF’s power has also been used in space research. 

Thanks to its ability to create extreme environments, scientists have used NIF to mimic space conditions where scientists can find data that would otherwise be impossible, such as stellar interiors, or a supernova—a massive stellar explosion when a star exhausts its nuclear fuel and others.

Since NIF can create massive compression resembling big planets like Jupiter and Saturn, scientists also use it to analyze what would happen to materials under such extreme conditions, such as how hydrogen transforms into metal. 

Researchers are also looking to integrate its fusion application into propulsion systems of satellites and spacecraft, a technology that is expected to be a decade away from current science’s reach. However, as Live Science reported from LLNL, study for such a project has begun since 2005, termed the “Vehicle for Interplanetary Transport Applications.”

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