If scientists and officials at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California seem a little starstruck these days, there's a good reason: The lab's massive National Ignition Facility, or NIF, has something of a starring role in Star Trek Into Darkness, which opened nationwide last Thursday. "For many years, we've been waiting for ‘Star Trek' to realize that they should be here," NIF principal associate director Ed Moses told Live Science. "This is a very futuristic facility... and I think we've all been influenced by Star Trek's vision of the future."
The film's director, J.J. Abrams, and its stars have been similarly enthusiastic about the opportunity to film at the classified facility. "We were there just trying to shoot a movie, but all around us, these innovative scientists are working on technologies that will likely help the whole world," said Abrams. "The idea that one day the research at NIF could create clean, limitless energy is so exciting.... These people are doing research that could alter the destiny of the planet the way the wheel or the light bulb did."
Benedict Cumberbatch, who plays a villain and is evidently something of a science nerd, told a reporter that NIF "is trying to create hydrogen fusion by using lasers fired at extraordinary speeds through various lenses. If they can hit this target of hydrogen -- which is half the breadth of a human hair in this huge cell -- they will create this alternate energy supply which could power San Francisco for a year with one burst."
And John Cho, who plays helmsman Hikaru Sulu, has told reporters somewhat sheepishly how he and co-star Karl Urban (who plays Dr. Leonard McCoy) were pranked by their cast mates and the crew into smearing white "neutron cream" on their noses and cheeks to neutralize the radiation emitted by NIF, and to jump up and down frequently while shaking their hands "to shake the neutrons out." (Cumberbatch tells a similar story.)
But all the glowing praise and tales of Hollywood hijinks are misleading the public about NIF's true purpose while also masking a very troubling reality, one that lab officials -- and their federal overseers at the National Nuclear Security Administration and the Department of Energy (DOE) -- would clearly prefer not to discuss: NIF is not designed to produce "clean, limitless energy," it is years behind schedule and billions of dollars over budget, it has thus far failed to ignite the fusion reaction for which it was built, and there is a growing acceptance that it probably will never be able to generate a fusion reaction that produces more energy than was required to initiate it.
NIF is essentially an extremely large, very powerful laser. It was designed to produce a 500-trillion-watt pulse focused on a single, small cylindrical gold-plated target (called a hohlraum), heating it very rapidly and causing it to radiate intense X-rays. Those X-rays, in turn, trigger ignition of a two-millimeter capsule of frozen deuterium-tritium fuel that surrounds a tiny amount of deuterium-tritium gas, producing a self-sustaining fusion reaction more energetic than the pulse that initiated the process. (Each firing of the laser requires 1,000-times more energy than the United States consumes at any given moment.)
All the components are housed in a building large enough to contain three football fields. The NIF's 287,000-pound, 10-meter-diameter spherical target chamber -- into which 192 laser beamlines converge -- stands in for the warp core of the USS Enterprise in the film. (Although it looks nothing like the warp cores previously featured in any of the television or film incarnations of Star Trek, it is convincing, perhaps because it is real. And as NIF officials have pointed out, the Enterprise's faster-than-light warp engines also run on deuterium fuel.)
NIF is a successor to Livermore's earlier Nova laser (which also failed to achieve ignition). Conceived in the early 1990s and funded out of DOE's weapons activities account -- not the science or energy account -- as the centerpiece of the department's new Stockpile Stewardship and Management Program, NIF was supposed to simulate the temperatures and densities at the very earliest stages of the ignition of a thermonuclear bomb. This, in turn, would verify and improve complex computer simulations, facilitate a better understanding of how modified or aging weapons materials would behave, and allow the United States to test the reliability of nuclear weapons without actually blowing them up. (Congress halted underground nuclear explosions in September 1992.)