First light — the birth of the Lab’s laser program

Sixty years ago in 1960, at Hughes Aircraft Company in Malibu, California, Thomas Maiman fired his solid-state ruby laser, emitting humankind’s first coherent visible light. The concept of a laser had been invented by Charles Townes, then a professor at Columbia University, who tested the idea at microwave frequencies in 1953, calling it a maser (now laser, “light” amplification by stimulated emission of radiation). Maiman’s success sparked international competition in laser development for scientific discovery and possible future applications.

Almost immediately several Livermore physicists, including future LLNL Director John Nuckolls, Stirling Colgate and Ray Kidder, began to think about methods for initiating a thermonuclear explosion using laser light as the driver. Less than two years later, Kidder visited Maiman at Hughes Aircraft and returned to the Lab convinced that the small laser could be scaled up. He recommended to Lab Director Johnny Foster that Livermore initiate a laser fusion project; and, shortly thereafter, Foster gave the go ahead for a small program dubbed Q Project, headed by Kidder.

The Laboratory had long been interested in fusion; and paths to achieve such, including Project Sherwood (magnetic fusion) had been a part of the Lab’s identity since it first opened its doors in 1952. Alongside such efforts, John Nuckolls and a small group of Lab researchers had been considering a variety of methods (including particle accelerators, plasma guns and pulsed power machines) for igniting a small capsule containing deuterium-tritium (DT) fuel. Then, in June 1960, Nuckolls and colleagues, running the latest computer codes, established the possibility of using radiation to implode a small thermonuclear fuel pellet and initiate a fusion explosion. All that was missing was the driver. A month later, Maiman announced his invention to world.

Q Project, or Q Division, was established in 1962 within the Lab’s Physics Department. From 1962 until late 1969, the laser effort included about eight scientific and 20 support persons and received about $1 million a year. While Kidder and his group explored basic aspects of the light-plasma interaction and high-power, short-pulse laser development, John Nuckolls and his colleagues in A Division worked on fuel pellet design and laser inertial confinement fusion (ICF) calculations. By the late 1960s, John Nuckolls had teamed with Lowell Wood to redo his earlier calculations with more updated physics and computer codes. One of their recruits, George Zimmerman, developed the LASNEX code to support ICF research, and it evolved into a mainstay of the laser fusion program.

However, by the early 1970s, it was clear that a concerted investment was needed to make real progress in ICF. Despite advances in Q Division’s work, Livermore’s lasers were still nowhere near achieving the joule capacity needed for laser fusion. So too, organizational problems also plagued the early laser fusion effort at the Lab. Kidder’s Q Division had been operating since 1962 while, at the same time, Nuckolls and his group had been working in A Division. In the late 1960s, physicist Jim Wilson and his group in B Division also began their own work on lasers. Kidder, Nuckolls and Wilson proposed that work on solid-state lasers directed toward application to ICF be increased. Lab Director Mike May asked Carl Haussmann, then associate director for Plans, to assess and coordinate an expanded effort within the Lab and with the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC).

Haussmann toured the country to take stock of the state of high-power, short-pulse laser work. At the same time John Nuckolls and Lowell Wood urged him to initiate a major project to construct a high-power 10 kJ laser — a project that would require a major infusion in funding from the AEC. In 1971, Carl Haussmann pulled together the Laboratory’s laser efforts, and the Y Program and Y-Division were established under Haussmann’s leadership. To further the effort, the Lab recruited John Emmett, head of solid-state laser research at the Naval Research Laboratory. In the summer of 1972, Emmett agreed to lead the Lab’s laser program, and efforts to build the Lab’s 10 kJ laser (Shiva) were underway.After a number of significant technical breakthroughs, five years later, on Nov. 18, 1977 at 9:35 p.m., the Lab’s 20-beam Shiva became the world’s most powerful laser when the milestone full-power firing delivered 10.2 kilojoules of energy in less than a billionth of a second.

Pictured: Carl Haussmann and John Emmett, working on lasers in 1973.