Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

The most important building in the world

By Malcolm Potts

What I call "The Most Important Building in the World" is large and expensive and it is on the Lawrence Livermore campus off Highway 580 and 40 miles from Cal.

Three huge challenges will dominate the rest of the 21st century:

  • Can we avoid destroying ourselves with weapons of mass destruction?
  • Can we slow rapid population growth in a human rights framework?
  • Can we generate power without pouring CO2 into the atmosphere?
  • The Most Important Building in the World is the National Ignition Facility (NIF) at the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory, because it promises to make nuclear fusion a reality. It is much nearer this supreme goal then I realized until I had the privilege of joining a party of colleagues who were shown around the facility by Ed Moses, the director of NIF.

    The goal is to create the pressures and temperatures found in the middle of the sun, sufficient to fuse two isotopes of hydrogen (deuterium and tritium) into helium with the release of prodigious energy. But without the radio-activity and other dangers associated with the current nuclear fission power plants.

    Ernest Lawrence was recruited from Yale to join the Berkeley faculty in 1928 as an associate professor. In 1930 he became the youngest ladder rank professor on the Berkeley faculty and nine years later he received the Nobel Prize for his invention of the cyclotron. Lawrence played an important role in the Manhattan project and after the War he was involved in some of the early attempts to limit the proliferation of nuclear weapons. In 1952 Lawrence and Edward Teller helped found the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. Much of its early work was in the development of compact nuclear weapons and today it ‘tests’ nuclear weapons in a super-computer, instead of underground in Nevada.

    The slogan of the NIF  is “Bring star power to Earth?” The most Important Building in the World houses 192 lasers, each 50 times more powerful than their rivals anywhere else on Earth. The building is 10 stories high (we took the elevator to the laser level) and the size of three football from fields. The photons from these lasers are focused onto a tiny target about the size of a peanut.

    The NIF marries cutting-edge science with extraordinary accurate and ingenious engineering solutions. All the work has to be done to engineering tolerances equivalent to one third the diameter of a human hair and on time scales of billionths of a second. The vacuum chamber in which the lasers are focused is 10 meters in diameter. Ed Moses looks to the complex engineering in the room with the cleanliness of an operating theater and says wistfully, “You're not supposed to fall in love with an inanimate object!”  When you see the NIF you understand this perspective.

    The scientists and engineers are more bullish than I expected. Could they have fusion in a year or two? And if they succeed can the process be brought to scale?

    The first lasers invented in the 1950s and 1060s filled a lab room, but now a laser fits into the end of my ball point pen. I'm old enough to remember the newsreel images of the first hydrogen bomb. It was vast device, the size of an airplane hangar on the remote Bikini Atoll in the Pacific. Within a short time multiple hydrogen bombs were being fitted on top of one intercontinental ballistic missile. NIF has diagrams of lasers which could be used in a commercial fusion facility that would be an order of magnitude smaller than those in the Most Important Building in the World. But in this case, instead of threatening humankind with destruction, they hold the possibility changing the world in a magnificent way and without any downside risks. The water found in a water cooler at the end of the corridor in most Cal buildings would provide enough electric power to supply San Francisco for many months..

    UC Berkeley, and especially our students, are suffering from the grid-lock policies of the California legislature and the Stone Age tribal politics of the Tea Party. It is uplifting to know that 40 miles from the campus The Most Important Building in the World is doing experiments which could begin to ‘bring star power to Earth’ in the life time of even the older faculty such as myself. There are big things that are worth tax payers’ money. There are skills and insights only a university can provide that do have the power to change the world.

    I am a physician and a biologist and from a blog on Health and Medicine I salute my colleagues in physics and engineering and I hope more young students will enter these fields.