It is as big as a professional sports stadium and will eventually house 192 powerful lasers, all of which will be focused on a BB-sized capsule sitting inside a small tin can-like structure. When fired off in unison, the lasers’ powerful light beams will crunch the tiny capsule, causing the atoms inside to fuse together. The result will be a colossal burst of energy from the same nuclear fusion process that takes place in the Sun, and the other stars in the universe.
In this instance, however, the venue will not be the fiery interior of a star, but the more tranquil surface of planet Earth. The specific location is the National Ignition Facility (NIF), now under construction at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL), Livermore, California.
The earthbound fusion process that will take place in NIF, which is scheduled for completion in 2008, has been successfully created in smaller, predecessor laser facilities at LLNL, known as SHIVA and NOVA, but more energy had to be used to create those fusion reactions than was created by them. The intent is to reverse that equation in NIF, so that the process produces more energy than it consumes. If the process is successful, nuclear fusion could provide an endless source of energy, since the fuel contained in the target capsule consists of the hydrogen isotopes deuterium and tritium, and hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe.