Controlling the Sun's Center

In Livermore, Calif., early in the next decade, a "science factory" with an astounding array of control technologies will aim up to 192 lasers at one point, another step toward using lasers to "ignite" fusion. The blast of energy aims to fuse hydrogen isotopes of deuterium and tritium into helium nuclei—with energy output higher than energy input.




  • Software and information integration

  • Human-machine interface (HMI)

  • Motors, drives and motion control

  • PC-based control

  • Networks and communications

  • System integration

  • Distributed computing

In Livermore, Calif., early in the next decade, a "science factory" with an astounding array of control technologies will aim up to 192 lasers at one point, another step toward using lasers to "ignite" fusion. The blast of energy aims to fuse hydrogen isotopes of deuterium and tritium into helium nuclei—with energy output higher than energy input.

The National Ignition Facility (NIF) is being constructed by Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL), in conjunction with Sandia National Laboratories, Los Alamos National Laboratory, and the University of Rochester. France and the U.K. have been collaborating with LLNL under bilateral agreements with the U.S. LLNL is operated by University of California for the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). Groundbreaking was in May 1997.

Human efforts have achieved fusion previously. Unconfined fusion occurs in weaponry. Controlled and contained fusion to date by nonlaser methods has consumed more energy than it produced—not optimal for the eventual goal of a clean, energy producing plant or for high-energy space propulsion.

Applications, 500 TW

NIF, at a cost of just over $1 billion, will support the DOE's Stockpile Stewardship Program. The program's goal is to assure safety and reliability of the U.S. nuclear weapon stockpile in absence of nuclear tests. Other applications have resulted from research associated with predecessors to NIF's 192 ultraviolet (Nd-glass) lasers. Past and anticipated future applications from related laser research include the first soft X-ray laser, efficient visible lasers, radar use, medical lasers, EUV lithography, and ultra-short laser pulses for cutting. Commercial nuclear fusion electric generating plants may take until 2050 or longer, predict NIF scientists.

Energies expected at the focal point of the NIF laser array are enormous, if brief. In a pulse length of 3 x 10-9sec, NIF will produce 1,800 kilojoules of energy, at peak power of 500 teraWatts (500 trillion W). For a sliver of a moment, the energy produced will exceed total U.S. electric generating capacity by more than 1,000 times!

NIF lasers will contain more precision optics (33,000 ft2) than all the telescopes in the world combined, requiring precise control of lasers, optics, and related equipment so each beam travels 600 feet, through amplifiers, and into the target chamber center, hitting within a 50 micron target in a 30 picosecond span.

Further requirements, according to Paul J. Van Arsdall, system engineer, integrated computer control system for NIF, include 24-hour by seven-day availability (with 7.5 days of unscheduled maintenance per year), 30-year project life, and ability to use direct and indirect laser targeting methods.

LLNL served as system integrator in the project. "We're using a lot of new technology in challenging ways. We were concerned about performance of a fully deployed system, versus lab tests, so we worked on a program to simulate critical control scenarios using discrete modeling techniques, scaling up lab designs to ensure we weren't being naive about performance of the full-scaled system," says Mr. Van Arsdall, project leader for the integrated control system.

Controls and related labor, at some $96 million, is running about 8% of total project cost. Unlike other projects, the "goal is to future-proof the work and create portability of code with long-term maintainability. This is a longer-term product than most industries construct."

Mr. Van Arsdall agreed to name some of the hundreds of vendors involved, but says use of a particular vendor doesn't mean that the project participants or the U.S. government endorses any particular manufacturer. [Here's what the attorneys require: Neither LLNL or the U.S. government makes any warranty, express or implied, or assumes any legal liability or responsibility for the accuracy, completeness, or usefulness of any information, product, or process disclosed in this article.]

9,500 motors

NIF lasers and control system, inside a 704 x 403 x 85 ft high building (football stadium-sized), require approximately 9,500 stepper motors for laser positioning, Wind River Systems' (Alameda, Calif.) VxWorks operating system, and PCI bus embedded system to serve 10-15 years within a multi-operating system environment.

Software for the integrated control system, which Mr. Van Arsdall calls the system's soul, is expected to take 150 person-years of development time.

Software helps a dozen engineers control 50,000 points, 600 cameras, 3,000 actuators, analyze 3,000 images, measure offsets, and move steppers as needed, without operator intervention, unless a control loop doesn't stabilize. The automated process must occur in under an hour and may include 48,000 messages between front-end processors and the supervisory system. While planning for a firing may begin weeks in advance, configurations may vary widely depending on the experiment. Three shots a day will occur with an intricate choreography for each, including elaborate backups in case of an aborted shot.

Software is expected to gather about 400 MB of data per firing with an array of sensors. The highly distributed architecture had to be flexible enough to allow upgrades in controls, diagnostics, computers, and design, during construction and within its 30-year anticipated life, Mr. Van Arsdall says.

Object-oriented framework

The integrated computer control system architecture is described as an abstract object-oriented framework for constructing distributed control systems. NIF selected international software standard Ada 95 as the central NIF software language, also used for air-traffic control and military command and control systems.

Code is written in frameworks, modular pieces built and tested in increments, allowing problem-solving without writing a lot of detailed code. In September, the team completed the shot coordination and lifecycle framework, the third on the six steps code-writing journey to a full system operation.

The control system has front-end processors and a supervisory system. The distributed control system used for system operation has 354 computers—35 Sun Microsystems (Palo Alto, Calif.) UltraSPARC computers running eight supervisory applications, 264 PowerPC-based computers with VxWorks, and 55 other UltraSPARC computers for 14 front-end processor applications. The supervisory system layer, hosted on workstations, runs Sun Solaris UNIX.

Highlights include helping 400 computers communicate using object technologies of CORBA (Common Object Request Brokerage Architecture by the 500-company consortium Object Management Group, Framingham, Mass.) For Ada 95 codes, NIF uses ORBexpress from Objective Interface Systems (Reston, Va.)

A simulation included study of CORBA, looking at impact on network and processor performance, by varying transaction rate and message size (200-300 bytes). The project team wrote the services code themselves, to improve ability to maintain or modify, and to make it more lean than CORBA services. For example, notification by exception from a chosen setpoint reduces network traffic.

With configuration and development environment in multiple operating systems, Sun Java technology was chosen.

"Staff had some experience with it and developed a Java-based thin-client graphical user interface for multiple stations, mixing languages and operating systems so control is in the software, using CORBA to communicate to the rest of the control system," Mr. Van Arsdall says. Java programming tools and programmers are readily available. Programmers develop on Microsoft (Redmond, Wa.) Windows NT in an office environment then transfer to the Solaris environment for the control room, with "some front-end Windows NT," Mr. Van Arsdall says.

NIF was among early adopters of Rockwell Automation (Milwaukee, Wis.) Allen-Bradley Control Logix PLCs; a related task was to work out the interface details to communicate with Solaris workstations.


Echelon (Palo Alto, Calif.) LonWorks is being used for distributed laser diagnostic sensors. Self-designed front-end circuitry required a customized chip-level solution.

Ethernet will be used with no shared segments. ATM (155 Mb/sec, Asynchronous Transfer Mode) will be used to transport digitized motion video from sensors to process equipment and operator stations. Worst-case network deployment scenarios were studied with Opnet (Annandale, Va.) Modeler simulations, mixing ATM and Fast Ethernet (100 Mb/sec) networks.

No comments
The Top Plant program honors outstanding manufacturing facilities in North America. View the 2013 Top Plant.
The Product of the Year program recognizes products newly released in the manufacturing industries.
The Engineering Leaders Under 40 program identifies and gives recognition to young engineers who...
The true cost of lubrication: Three keys to consider when evaluating oils; Plant Engineering Lubrication Guide; 11 ways to protect bearing assets; Is lubrication part of your KPIs?
Contract maintenance: 5 ways to keep things humming while keeping an eye on costs; Pneumatic systems; Energy monitoring; The sixth 'S' is safety
Transport your data: Supply chain information critical to operational excellence; High-voltage faults; Portable cooling; Safety automation isn't automatic
Case Study Database

Case Study Database

Get more exposure for your case study by uploading it to the Plant Engineering case study database, where end-users can identify relevant solutions and explore what the experts are doing to effectively implement a variety of technology and productivity related projects.

These case studies provide examples of how knowledgeable solution providers have used technology, processes and people to create effective and successful implementations in real-world situations. Case studies can be completed by filling out a simple online form where you can outline the project title, abstract, and full story in 1500 words or less; upload photos, videos and a logo.

Click here to visit the Case Study Database and upload your case study.

Maintaining low data center PUE; Using eco mode in UPS systems; Commissioning electrical and power systems; Exploring dc power distribution alternatives
Synchronizing industrial Ethernet networks; Selecting protocol conversion gateways; Integrating HMIs with PLCs and PACs
Why manufacturers need to see energy in a different light: Current approaches to energy management yield quick savings, but leave plant managers searching for ways of improving on those early gains.

Annual Salary Survey

Participate in the 2013 Salary Survey

In a year when manufacturing continued to lead the economic rebound, it makes sense that plant manager bonuses rebounded. Plant Engineering’s annual Salary Survey shows both wages and bonuses rose in 2012 after a retreat the year before.

Average salary across all job titles for plant floor management rose 3.5% to $95,446, and bonus compensation jumped to $15,162, a 4.2% increase from the 2010 level and double the 2011 total, which showed a sharp drop in bonus.

2012 Salary Survey Analysis

2012 Salary Survey Results

Maintenance and reliability tips and best practices from the maintenance and reliability coaches at Allied Reliability Group.
The One Voice for Manufacturing blog reports on federal public policy issues impacting the manufacturing sector. One Voice is a joint effort by the National Tooling and Machining...
The Society for Maintenance and Reliability Professionals an organization devoted...
Join this ongoing discussion of machine guarding topics, including solutions assessments, regulatory compliance, gap analysis...
IMS Research, recently acquired by IHS Inc., is a leading independent supplier of market research and consultancy to the global electronics industry.
Maintenance is not optional in manufacturing. It’s a profit center, driving productivity and uptime while reducing overall repair costs.
The Lachance on CMMS blog is about current maintenance topics. Blogger Paul Lachance is president and chief technology officer for Smartware Group.