Sunday, August 24, 2008

KQED radio: Explores LLNL Super Laser

KQED radio

A KQED Multimedia Series Exploring Northern California Science, Environment and Nature.

While construction of the football-stadium-sized National Ignition Facility was a marvel of engineering (see Building NIF), NIF is also a tour de force of science and technology development. To put NIF on the path to ignition experiments in 2010, scientists, engineers and technicians had to overcome a daunting array of challenges.

Working closely with industrial partners, the NIF team found solutions for NIF's optics in rapid-growth crystals, continuous-pour glass, optical coatings and new finishing techniques that can withstand NIF's extremely high energies. The team also worked with companies to develop pulsed-power electronics, innovative control systems and advanced manufacturing capabilities. Seven technological breakthroughs in particular were essential for NIF to succeed.

Science at the Extremes

When laboratory experiments begin at the National Ignition Facility in 2010, researchers will be able for the first time to study the effects on matter of the extreme temperatures, pressures and densities that exist naturally only in the stars and deep inside the planets. Results from this relatively new field of research, known as high energy density (HED) science, will mark the dawn of a new era of science. HED experiments at NIF promise to revolutionize our understanding of astrophysics and space physics, hydrodynamics, nuclear astrophysics, material properties, plasma physics, nonlinear optical physics, radiation sources and radiative properties and other areas of science.

Temperatures of more than 100 million kelvins (180 million degrees Fahrenheit); densities of about 1,000 grams per cubic centimeter; pressures more than 100 billion times greater than the Earth's atmosphere; neutron densities as high as 1033 per cubic centimeter per second. Only three places in the space and time of our universe have ever produced anything close to these conditions: the Big Bang, when the universe was born in a primordial fireball; the interiors of stars and planets; and thermonuclear weapons. Nothing within orders of magnitude of these extraordinary conditions has been available for laboratory experiments until now (see How to Make a Star). Because these conditions are so extreme, the connection between NIF and astrophysics is certain to excite scientists interested in using NIF to try to understand the objects in the cosmos, even to the beginning of the universe.

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