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Nuclear facility to house world's largest laser

March 29, 2000
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Commercial-industrial contractors sometimes find themselves involved in jobs whose total magnitude and importance far outshine the more mundane work typically found on a contractor’s plate.

Take F. Rodgers Insulation Interiors, Inc., Livermore, CA, for example. The company is one of the largest insulation contractors in Northern California, and as such has served industries that include refineries, power plants, chemical plants, geothermal producers, food processors, mines, wineries, prisons, hospitals, and other commercial-industrial projects.

But the Department of Energy’s $1.2 billion National Ignition Facility (NIF), containing the world’s largest laser, may have the greatest national importance of any job the contractor has been involved with to date. Every element of the structure’s plans had one guiding purpose: to create the optimum environment for safe operation of the laser facility.

Huge facility with critical goal

Engineering design started back in 1996 for the football stadium-size facility at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California. The NIF is expected to make incalculable contributions to U.S. national security by helping maintain the nation’s stockpile of nuclear weapons without nuclear testing.

It will also evaluate an environmentally attractive energy source alternative; provide insight into the origin of the universe; and advance the competitiveness of many key American industries. Its design must be world class.

Construction started in 1997 and is expected to last through 2003. More than 75% of the project’s cost will be spent on construction and manufacturing. The intense effort is creating more than 6,000 jobs around the country, including 2,800 in the San Francisco Bay area.

The project is approximately 60% complete. Sverdrup Facilities Inc. serves as the NIF construction manager, chosen because of its expertise in designing and constructing scientific facilities.

Don Mardesich, project manager for the insulation contractor, explained that rooms housing some of the NIF’s equipment must stay within a constant 1°F range in order for the laser to work correctly. The duct board liner the contractor installs will play a large role in maintaining that temperature range.

When the insulation contractor finally departs from the jobsite for the last time after two years — doing additional work involving fiber glass insulation in the roof of the building and exterior walls — its teams will have put in nearly 2,300 workhours on this job, often working on scaffolding 70 ft in the air.

Beam me up Scotty

When completed, the NIF will house 192 laser beamlines that run the length of the facility and deliver huge amounts of energy upon a fusion capsule the size of a BB pellet.

The laser will compress the capsule to a small fraction of its original size and heat a portion of it to 100 million °C, a temperature actually greater than the center of the sun and other stars. A fusion reaction will ignite, producing more energy than was delivered in the laser beams.

NIF experiments will contribute to new understanding in sciences such as astrophysics, plasma physics, hydrodynamics, radiative transport, x-ray laser development, and the properties of materials.

The NIF says it will push many of its industrial partners’ technological capabilities to new levels, while demanding products and equipment used in its construction that will perform at peak efficiency into the 21st century.

One key material is fiber glass insulation, installed throughout the facility to provide thermal and acoustical control and to assist ultimately in the proper operation of high-tech equipment. Throughout the walls and plenum areas of the NIF, 190,000 sq ft of CertainTeed ToughGard™ rigid liner board is installed, extending up to a height of 90 ft and along 300-ft-wide walls.

Product must perform

Hensel Phelps Construction Co., San Jose, CA, the construction company charged with completing architectural build-out and finishing of the structure to house the NIF, asked F. Rodgers to specify the appropriate rigid liner board for the project.

In order to accomplish the thermal and acoustical goals indicated by the Ralph M. Parsons Co., the architect-engineer for the primary NIF facility, insulation contractor F. Rodgers chose the ToughGard board.

“Even though another brand of rigid liner board was initially suggested, I changed the spec…because of the success we had had using it on the headquarters of a major computer software firm in San Jose,” Mardesich explained.

“Since we had so much handling and cutting to do, we wanted a strong product that cut easily, yet retained its strength and rigidity. We also needed a product that we knew would be consistent in quality, board after board.”

The rigid liner board is composed of rotary-glass fibers bonded together with a thermosetting resin. Its damage-resistant airstream surface holds up to high air velocities without fiber erosion, ensuring a longer-lasting, efficiently operating duct system, according to the manufacturer. It is used in sheet metal ducts, plenums, and equipment housings that supply conditioned air.

The airstream surface of the 2-in.-thick board in the NIF application faces upward towards the roof, in the plenum area where air moves and is recirculated.

With the facility’s design resembling a building within a building, the rigid liner board extends down the inner wall of the inner building nearly 90 ft.

The insulation contractor said it is proud to be involved in such a significant project with important positive worldwide benefits. “Each industrial partner in this project is playing a key role in our national security, energy research, and industrial competitiveness,” noted Mardesich.

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