By BRAD KVEDERIS, Times-Herald staff writer LIVERMORE - For decades, fusion power has remained an elusive Holy Grail for the scientific community - the stuff of science fiction novels or Darth Vader's "Death Star."
But not at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory's stadium-sized National Ignition Facility (NIF). There, research teams hope to gain access to sustained fusion, and other scientific firsts, for the first time outside a Hollywood movie set or a thermonuclear weapons test.
When completed, a 192-beam instrument is expected to be both the world's largest and its most intense laser, capable of creating temperatures and pressures similar to those inside stars.
But the NIF project has not been without its critics: Environmental and anti-war groups have complained about its use in atomic weapons research. Government overseers have griped about cost overruns from the facility's original $1.5 billion budget.
And, a recent Oakland Tribune article reported that nuclear fusion experiments aren't expected to begin until 2014 - more than a decade later than originally planned.
With so much controversy surrounding the project, it's almost easy to forget what the big machine is capable of doing.
Easy, that is, until you're 30 feet above the ground, staring at a football field-sized bank of beams, only to be told that it's only half the laser. Or, until you're in the facility's basement, wearing a hard hat and clean suit booties, looking up at the 30-foot target chamber that weighs one million pounds.
It's also easy to overlook, amid all the hype, that the NIF is already a working research facility, with four operating lasers that are performing experiments while installation continues on the remaining 188 beams.