A US weapons lab on Friday pulled back the curtain on a super laser with the power to burn as hot as a star.
The National Ignition Facility’s main purpose is to serve as a tool for gauging the reliability and safety of the US nuclear weapons arsenal but scientists say it could deliver breakthroughs in safe fusion power.
“We have invented the world’s largest laser system,” actor-turned-governor Arnold Schwarzenegger said during a dedication ceremony attended by thousands including state and national officials.
“We can create the stars right here on earth. And I can see already my friends in Hollywood being very upset that their stuff that they show on the big screen is obsolete. We have the real stuff right here.”
NIF is touted as the world’s highest-energy laser system. It is located inside the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory about an hour’s drive from San Francisco.
Equipment connected to a house-sized sphere can focus 192 laser beams on a small point, generating temperatures and pressures that exist at cores of stars or giant planets.
I can say that I worked on this project, though so far removed from the actual purpose that it doesn’t count. These guys were using an ERP system that had contracted my employer to provide a barcode interface to their basic software. When LLNL (Lawrence Livermore National Labs) decided they wanted to barcode all of the materials that come into their warehouse for tracking purposes, we went on site to evaluate their needs and make some recommendations — software, hardware, etc. This was actually several years ago, and was one of the first projects I was involved with. I traveled out to Livermore with Chris, the president of the company I work for.
First we had to undergo a security clearance check. There were forms to fill out and send in, etc. before they would even allow us on site. Once we got to Livermore, we had to meet our contact there just to get through the gates. This was some James Bond type stuff, because the guards at the gate were heavily armed, and one would position himself off to the side of the car with his hand on his weapon while the other would check the IDs of everyone in the car, all the while keeping his hand on his weapon as well.
That’s where the Bond-level coolness ends, for the most part. You would expect that such a high tech installation would look high tech, but it didn’t. The main campus was a hodge podge of temporary buildings, like portable classrooms or trailers, not unlike this:
I think the maze of roads and dead ends was enough of a deterrent for criminals bent on espionage — who the hell would know how to find anything important? We asked why it was like this, and our guide told us that it “takes an act of Congress” to allocate funds to budget constructing an actual building, but as the installation grew they were allowed to throw up the temporary structures as needed — and they had obviously done so, all higgeldy piggeldy. That’s your government in top form, ladies and gentlemen!
We were shown through a couple warehouses, talked to some people, then went back to a conference room to sit down with a bunch of managers and their IT guy (the security level on the IT side was ridiculous in the way the IP traffic was handled; well beyond my understanding of this stuff, with “green zones” and “red zones” and all this mumbo jumbo keeping addresses segmented away from certain security levels; what a nightmare it would be as an admin for that stuff).
We didn’t get to see the actual inside of where they were doing all their laser development — at the time they had 1 of the 192 lasers operational — but we drove by it. It just looked like a sports arena, not unlike the field house here in Missoula.
We got to hear the whole story of the project during our meeting. The main project manager was one of the people in the meeting, and he seemed like just a normal guy, clearly in love with the challenge — which was touted as a Department of Energy project to explore nuclear fusion as a potential source of energy for powering the national grid.
The word “laser” kept coming up, and I kinda smirked as I was taking notes. My boss said, “What are you laughing at?” because I’m sure he knew what I was thinking. So all these guys are looking at me, and I said, “Did any of you guys ever see Austin Powers? Every time you mention the ‘laser’ I think of that movie.” They thought that was pretty hilarious. So from that point forward, every time anyone mentioned the “laser” they held their fingers up to make the double-quotes sign. It was amusing. Stupid, but amusing.
Anyway, that’s my story about the LLNL project. I think they have since changed ERP software, I don’t know. They bought all the tools from us that would enable them to do all their customizations and stuff themselves anyway — I know I haven’t talked to them in at least a couple years. But it was fun. And my first opportunity to see the Bay Area as well — we spent an evening in San Francisco. That was memorable.
Speaking of Rocket Science