The National Ignition Facility (NIF) is located at Lawrence Livermore National Labs in California. The complex houses the most powerful laser system in the world, using 192 lasers to create a peak power of 500,000,000,000,000 watts of energy for 1/20,000,000,000 of a second. All of that energy focuses precisely on a 2mm wide gas filled object in the center of a 50 foot wide metal sphere, with various detectors placed around it.
One of the main goals of NIF is to simulate certain effects of an atomic bomb without blowing one up. Really powerful bombs like the ones the US have are kind of hard to predict. It can be quite challenging to anticipate the yield a complex thermonuclear device will have. There is no nice way to say it, but we need to know how effective our nuclear weapons are so that when (not if) we use them, we know how many we need to drop on a target to effectively destroy it. We can also learn how many we can get rid of and still ensure mutual destruction of any attacker. Basically, the yield numbers are there to help us guess how many people we can kill at once.
A side benefit of our nation having a inertial confinement fusion research device (the fancy term for NIF) is that we can start to experiment with controlled fusion reactions in a laboratory setting. The hope is to some day create a self-sustaining fusion reaction. Like a mini Sun. Of course – chances are it will be decades before they have this particular part worked out. The benefit of getting it working would be an almost limitless supply of energy. I don’t know what the energy needs of the United States will be in 75 years, but I am fairly certain that without technology such as this our grandchildren will be in big trouble.
For the IT nerds in the room: 3par storage, HP blades, and a smattering of other minor gear.
Images Credit: Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. The US government retains copyright on all images. Used with permission.