I was sitting in the cinema watching JJ Abrams’ Star Trek: Into The Darkness, when I felt a flash of recognition as Captain Kirk and Scotty walked around the engineering decks to stand before the warp core of the USS Enterprise.
The spherical chamber buried in a mass of gleaming ducting and pipework is actually the target chamber for the National Ignition Facility (NIF) in Livermore, California. Filming took place during a scheduled maintenance period in 2012.
The laboratory houses “the world’s largest and highest energy laser system”, delivering 2m joules of ultraviolet laser energy in pulses of a billionth of a second. Experiments provide data about nuclear reactions for use in weapons, energy generation and analysis of the reactions taking place within stars.
The 192 lasers are amplified by passing through lens arrays in two vast warehouses, bouncing back and forth before they are diverted and focused on to a target – not dilithium crystals but a 2mm capsule filled with super-cooled hydrogen fuel. When the lasers strike the capsule it is vaporised in a reaction that creates temperatures of more than 100m degrees centigrade and pressures 100bn times that of the Earth’s atmosphere.
That’s pretty impressive, even if it doesn’t make warp speed. lasers.llnl.gov
Photography: Paramount Pictures; National Ignition Facility