Countdown to Nuclear Fusion: National Ignition Facility Warms Up

By Eliza Strickland | March 26, 2009 2:24 pm

NIF fuel capsuleResearchers in California are preparing to fire 192 lasers at a minuscule pellet of fuel to create their first nuclear fusion reaction, the same reaction that takes place in the center of the sun. Within two to three years, the researchers at the National Ignition Facility (NIF) expect to be creating fusion reactions that release more energy than it takes to produce them. If they’re successful, it will be the first time this has been done in a controlled way–in a lab rather than a nuclear bomb, that is–and could eventually lead to fusion power plants [Technology Review].

Earlier this month, technicians test fired all 192 lasers at once, concentrating their beams on a single focal point in the middle of the chamber. For the test, the chamber was empty. But when real experiments begin within the next few months, the target will be a tiny gold capsule the size of an extra-strength Advil. The goal is to mash the contents of the capsule, a BB-size pellet of hydrogen frozen to nearly absolute zero, until the hydrogen atoms fuse into helium and release a gush of energy [Forbes Magazine].

The $3.5 billion facility, which has been in development for 15 years, was funded primarily as a way to better understand nuclear weapons, after a ban on testing in the 1990s. NIF will produce tiny thermonuclear explosions that give scientists insight into what happens when a nuclear bomb goes off. That data can, in turn, be used to verify computer simulations that help determine whether the United States’ nuclear stockpile will continue to work as the weapons age [Technology Review]. But other researchers will be studying the basics of nuclear fusion in order to better understand our sun and other stars, while still others are most interested in nuclear fusion as a revolutionary, and clean, energy source.

To point the way towards nuclear fusion power plants (instead of the typical nuclear fission power plants), researchers will have to reach that elusive goal: the “burn,” a self-sustaining reaction that puts out more energy than it takes in. Many have tried and failed to reach that goal before, but NIF director Edward Moses is undaunted. He dismisses all previous attempts at fusion as lighting the edge of a pile of wet leaves. “Poof, and then it’s out,” he says. “We’re going to burn the pile. We are on the edge of burn” [Forbes Magazine].

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Image: Lawrence Livermore National Security, LLC, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, and the Department of Energy

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Physics & Math
  • knotnic

    I am heartened by the recent publicity of inertial fusion energy as NIF approaches full operation. But just like Tom Friedman’s Op-Ed in the NY Times recently, this article doesn’t mention that there are other significant efforts in the US to develop inertial confinement fusion – in particular ones that are primarily focused on developing power plants, as opposed to having that as a collateral benefit to weapons research.

    For example, the High Average Power Laser (HAPL) program is developing all the methodologies discussed in this article, including target fabrication & injection, more efficient KrF lasers and rapid repetition rates, etc. It’s also a direct-drive system, which is less messy and more efficient for power generation, but isn’t as effective for simulating weapons.

    Yes, I am involved in HAPL… Or rather I was … until Congress zeroed its funding a month or so ago. Now instead of engineering I’m trying to make folks aware of this research and its potential so we don’t lose years of hard work.

    (HAPL PDF: http://fire.pppl.gov/fpa07_sethian_hapl.pdf)

  • http://crowlspace.com/ Adam

    Hi knotnic

    It’s like the slavish devotion to enriched Uranium fission reactors because of the weapons-grade uranium and plutonium produced as byproducts of the whole processing industry. When will the unholy marriage of power and weapons be at an end? But, of course, ‘power’ in all its forms is often backed by weapons isn’t it?

  • chris

    Adam,

    Weapons are necessary. Wonder what the world would be like today if the nuclear weapon had never been developed?

    Perhaps if the nature of man changes then we could move away from having weapons.

    That said I do not lavish in the inapropriate use of weapons or to see them in the hands of tyrants.

  • Jim Hopf

    A very large fraction of all of our technology was initially developed for a military application. It seems that weapons are the only thing we deem “important” enough to spend huge amounts of research and development money on, for a long-term pay off.

    Here’s one more energy-related example. The “clean and efficient” modern (turbine) natural gas plants that so many people love are simply scaled-up jet engines. Why was the jet engine developed? For commercial air travel? Um, no. The large amount of money required for jet engine development was spent to develop jet fighter planes in the end years of world war 2, to counter Hitler’s jet planes. Thus, natural gas power plants are every bit as much of a military offshoot as nuclear power plants are.

  • http://clubneko.net Nick

    Much of evolution is an arms race to out-compete. In the jungle, you either defend yourself or someone else thrives on your carcass. So it’s not surprising that human nature would follow that pattern, as much as it might horrify some of us. Human intelligence itself is the byproduct of several hundred million years of different sequences of DNA struggling to out gun one another.

  • http://www.ic3d.tv shaun

    i though there was a test ban on thermonuclear explosions?

    even so, i bet the person who is pressing the “go” button will be a fair few yards away…like 10000 of them..

    happy nuke day

  • George W Bush

    Only the f*cking Americans would create small nuculear explosions just for the point of making sure it can use its old ones if anything like a war breaks out,

    this is exactly the idiotic and ignorent action we have come to expect from america, you dont suprise us anymore…you are a dumb near sighted country and the soon you blow yourselfs up the better…

    stupid f*cking americans…….

    move to canada you tw*ts/

  • Ron Paul

    George Bush…I have a strong feeling that you’re an America…and you should probobly go hang yourself as you are a sad excuse of life, grow up man.

  • namenotrequired

    There we go again: screaming that research like this is the result of a devotion to (creating) weapons. Never mind the fact that nuclear fusion could rid the world of its power problems. You’re a pacifist, you’re against weapons. OK, we get it. Now get over yourself and look at the big picture. And if you really want to do something to make the world a better place without endangering research like this, then get rid of the ridiculous Constitutional right to bear arms; that’s where a large part of your weapon-related problems actually reside (yeah, you guessed it, I’m not American).

  • StupidLibNuts

    Are people reading the same article? This will produce clean energy and power everything. Liberal wack jobs should love this. This will make all other energy sources obsolete. This will actually do something unlike wind and solar which are pipe dreams.
    It is my hope that fusion is discovered and America keeps it for herself. The world does not deserve our discoveries anymore. The rest of the world can rot if they do not like America.
    As far as getting rid of the 2nd amendment; it shows how morons do not think past their nose. In fact I am not going to waste anymore time on useless people.

  • Uncle B

    The suggestion is that Nuclear Fusion is possible – look skyward! Sun’s still there! Yes, it works well. Controlling it must be mastered for human survival, but never belittle Solar, Wind, Wave, Hydro, Tidal and Geothermal energies, they too contribute, and looking to the South Western U.S.A. today, we find the fruits of many investors who believe it so, in the form of producing Solar power plants and they would not appreciate being poo pooed by some with no real knowledge of the truth. Spain, Puerto Rico and Germany all currently use Solar power! Scotland uses Tidal, and Denmark is energy self-sufficient with the same wind power you denigrate! Look it up on the Web! Try typing Wind Power into Google, and sit back and read – We can so live without oil, Brazil is energy self sufficient by Solar, they grow sugar cane, using Solar, and make alcohol for their cars, but solar none the less! Bio-Diesel can be made right here in the U.S.A. – no ships to leak, no OPEC to contend with, just free oil! and we, Americans, have the “Know-How” right now! SEE:
    The University of New Hampshire is exploring ways of forced production of algae for biodiesel that is yielding 10,000 gallons per acre and uses salty water. Their calculations show that a tiny area of the Sonoran desert in New Mexico (about 9%) would be enough area to produce all of the transportation fuel in the U.S. using their production techniques. Already, one company is experimenting with algae production stations at a power plant to capture the CO2 from the exhaust and use it to make algae for biodiesel. http://www.itsgood4.us/biodiesel.htm
    The world is not all doom and gloom! America is on the “Cusp” of monumental world shifting Obama inspired Change! Let the man work, let him step hard on “Big Oil’s” fingers and you will see the fruits of education working for America and the end of the Shysters, shylocks, banksters swindlers, crapatalists and Fraudsters – may they all rest uncomfortably in Hell for what they did to a great country, and become targets the rest of their unholy lives!

  • Bill

    Who would’nt want clean unlimited power! Inertial confinement fusion (ICF) has a very bright future!

  • Jeff

    Only the f*cking Americans would create small nuculear explosions just for the point of making sure it can use its old ones if anything like a war breaks out,

    this is exactly the idiotic and ignorent action we have come to expect from america, you dont suprise us anymore…you are a dumb near sighted country and the soon you blow yourselfs up the better…

    stupid f*cking americans…….

    move to canada you tw*ts/”

    Thank you for proving to everyone how idiotic and ignorant you are by stating your argument with poor spelling, poor grammar, and name calling. If you’d actually put thought and time into your statement people might take you seriously which would be a shame.

    I for one truly wish that nuclear bombs had never come into existence, despite the arguments in support of them by other posters. Even if they did help us win a war against Japan, the threat of the total annihilation of the human race due to nuclear war (and the resulting radioactive fallout) seems to me to be too large of a price to pay. If this were to happen, did the ends truly justify the means?

    That said, I support NIF in it’s efforts to establish a self-sustaining fusion reaction, for two reasons: One, if the exponentially growing population of the world cannot find a safe, clean, and viable form of energy (one which does not occupy the land space required by wind, which isn’t highly variable based on the weather like solar, which isn’t geographically sparse like geothermal), we have to accept that the resulting energy wars of the future will, at best, wreck the world for us and for generations to come. Two, despite the weapons research benefits of it, finding a way to harness nuclear fusion will allow the human race to move beyond the boundaries placed on us by fossil fuels, which are only (as far as we know now at least) located on the earth. Maybe, just maybe, if humanity can begin exploring the solar system, and eventually even move beyond it, we can find something more interesting to do with our time than looking for new ways to annihilate each other.

  • Anonymous

    Jeff,

    While I may agree that people with poor spelling, grammar, and name calling do show their ignorance, let their opinions be. If they think this is a useless endeavor, let them.

    Arguments like this are futile. It’s like arguing about stem cell research with someone with firm religious beliefs on what dictates life. We are talking about a potential treatment of almost any disease that ends up in cellular death or damage (quite a lot).

    This discovery may lead to an untold future for energy. Advancements like these may solve all our energy problems, and perhaps even prove cold fusion (hey, one can dream, can’t he?)

    Or… It may cause several nutjobs to argue about how it will end the world, just like the collider was “supposed to”.

    However, don’t assume what would have happened if something was or wasn’t created. Although this is a crude example, Red Alert 3 (a fairly recent PC game) demonstrates this well…

    What if Einstein was murdered, and the atomic bomb was never made? No cold war, no arms race, the USSR would still be around? Japan wouldn’t have passed their passive military technologies bill and ended up more like North Korea?

    The point is that assumptions like these are best left in games or books, not in the conscious minds of people with too much imagination and a desire to prove others wrong…

    Besides, in today’s day and age, nuclear weapons are the least of our worries. Chemical and biological weapons are a lot more potent and a lot more dangerous, especially if you consider how much of them are missing from the former USSR. One vial of a weaponized or unweaponized bioweapon and it could wipe out half the planet, not counting what happens if it mutates, and ignoring any other factors…

    Anonymous

  • Also Anonymous

    …it says something about humans that not only is scientific progress that is on the verge of massively benefiting the entire world still fettered to attempts to get the one-up on everyone else, but even the comment thread on the article about it is half full of people hurling inane epithets at each other to do exactly the same thing on a more individual level…

    Depressing realizations aside, this is exciting news. One more step toward a usable fusion reaction is always a good thing, especially as older methods of generating energy get less and less feasible. Between the accelerated pace of fusion research, the imminent (hopefully) start-up of the LHC, and things like the recent discovery of a new (untheorized, even) particle at Fermilab, these next few years are looking good for physics.

  • http://woodengineer.blogspot.com WoodEngineer

    Umm…nuclear fusion on earth has been done many many times…theres been a number of fusion test plants. Yes this may be the first one to be done this way but it’s not the first fusion on earth. So i’m calling shenanigans on discovermagazine. Write your articles like you know something about nuclear fusion eh? The writer of this article in fact proves the initial statement of this being the first nuclear fusion is false later on in the article when he talks about the other nuclear fusion plants briefly.

    This is ANOTHER *CHANCE* to make a nuclear fusion “burn” that is self sustaining. I’m disappointed in you discover.

  • That one dude

    They’ve been trying to do fusion with lasers (and other methods) for a long time. It will produce a fusion reaction I’m sure, but it will have a really hard time breaking even, and I doubt it will even be close.

    http://www.fusor.net/

  • http://woodengineer.blogspot.com WoodEngineer

    nevermind I’m an idiot who can’t read correctly. I turn and direct my rant directly back at myself for not reading the article correctly. I came in thanks to a reddit post that had claimed it was the “first nuclear fusion reaction” and that had me angry, I read the article with that in mind and that comment was the result.
    I apologize to discover and the writer of the article I am indeed an idiot.

  • someone

    Our level of technology is not what’s stopping free energy.
    Take a look at Viktor Schauberger inventions from back in the early 20th century, specifically the ‘Trout Turbine’.
    Free energy is a threat to those who control our current fuel resources. And they have a lot more money and power than all of us combined.

  • tree

    Well ya know…..science also clearly demonstrates that humankind has existed, and indeed survived, and indeed flourished – for millions of years – without the need for electricity.

    MILLIONS OF YEARS. Do you not compute what that means? We don’t need electricity to survive – but these articles, they NEVER EVER put “reducing demand” on the table – it’s ALWAYS only about how to supply the demand. NEVER teach about reduction, about social change.

    Why? Why must we always answer the need for more power, at all cost? Why is reducing demand never on the table? If just half the money that went into nuclear power was instead spent on teaching society how to reduce this absurd demand for electrical power, then perhaps our societies and the earth might stand a chance of recovering from the last two hundred years of abuse. And as a by-product, there would be an enormous abundance of electricity.

    I actually do welcome nuclear power as a reasonable means of clean energy supply – although bitterly – my father is currently in the final stages of multiple myeloma cancer- thanks to exposure to tritium – he spent his life working in the nuclear industry – to keep you all powered up, so you can watch your stupid tv’s, share your stupid photos, blog about your stupid opinions. God knows you couldn’t POSSIBLY turn off the computers and spend time gardening, or learning to sew, or learning to make foods which require less energy to prepare – oh no, that’s not progress. We gotta have ipods, and electric cars, and fly all around the planet seeking cash. Sickening.

    It’s ALWAYS gotta be growth – constant growth. Have we learned NOTHING??

    MILLIONS OF YEARS OF SURVIVAL, YET WE CAN’T COMPREHEND A WAY FORWARD WITHOUT CONSTANTLY INCREASING ELECTRICITY NEEDS?? DOOMED.

    Balance the equation! Yes – seek better, cleaner methods to supply electricity, sure – but ALSO TEACH REDUCTION! For the love of the future, start TEACHING OUR SOCIETIES ABOUT HAPPINESS WITHOUT CONSTANTLY INCREASING ENERGY DEMAND.

    Aw whatever, it’s all falling on deaf ears – dumb blinking sheep. Very sad.

    And anyway, I think that by the time fusion is a functioning reality, most of the soil and water on earth will be spoiled, many beautiful species will be gone forever, and it’s all under our terrible stewardship of this planet – so who cares ya know, go for it. More PCB’s, more dioxin, more heat, more CO2, more plastic, more unnatural compounds, more paint down the sink, more renovation shows, more weed-killer lawns – keep it up folks, you’re doing so well….

    Yeah…cancer – it hits ya about 25 years later, that’s the rub. Humans don’t tend to think that far ahead, not about tiny things, like particles of tritium, surely they are too small to worry about right?

    Oh hey – here’s some surprising new research for you – thanks to the lovely 60’s and 70’s we had acid rain right? Now, you probably all think that’s been fixed up with the modern emission controls right? Well, just like cancer – the long term effects of acid rain ARE ONLY NOW STARTING TO KICK IN – that’s RIGHT! There are long term effects! We’re in for a wild ride!

    One long term effect of acid rain, has been the vast decalcification of our soils – and that reduction of calcium has indeed transferred to the lakes – which in turn has devastated the creation of these little teeny tiny creatures that are part of the regular food chain that has been happening for millions of years, too small to worry about though, right? ok – goodbye crayfish, goodbye bigger and bigger fish – hello cascading effect! Beautiful! Well, oh, we didn’t think of that in the 60’s because, well – people needed stuff, right?

    ….humans don’t think that far ahead….We need more electricity, and we need it now. So bring on fusion! What could possibly go wrong? People need more power – there’s just NOTHING we can do but find a way to supply it – right? No such thing as reducing demand. Nope.

    /rant over, i guess….i gotta go try to feel less depressed

  • D. Delp

    I hear you man. But, reduction will take a long time. Look around, people are reducing- especially here in PA where Electricity rates will be going thru the roof within the next two years. I personally, am looking into photovoltaic cells on my roof in conjunction with solar heated water.

    Take care D.D.

  • Slick42

    To the people taht red the commends of George W Bush / StupidLibNuts:

    DON’T FEED THE TROLL

    Don’t look at him, don’t answer him or anything and he WILL go away!!

  • V.W.

    tree,

    Humanity is only 200,000 years old.
    First agricultural society – 10,000 BC
    First civilization – 5,000 BC.
    First aircraft around 200 years ago.
    Double Helix (DNA) discovered 51 years ago.

    The Earth is expected to be effectively habitable for about another 500 million years. (due to the Sun’s core, the star’s total luminosity will slowly increase & destroy the life on Earth.)

    If there is a point for Human Civilization to exist, it is to develop new technologies that can save live in the future – on Earth or Beyond (space travel, to bring life to the habitable planet).

    Humanity need more power to create new technologies that today only on the boards, because there is not enough power to make it real.
    With fusion power, Humanity will reach the new stage for technology development.

    Also, with new technologies there are always new medical discoveries, that will help people to live longer and healthier.

  • Dev

    @ Tree

    Some may call you a ranting crazy. But there is some truth to what you say. Humans are animals. Our biology dictates that we Grow. Consume. Grow. Consume. This is Truth. We never consider the fact that the best way to survive is to stop growing. And stop consuming. This simple idea is the root cause of each and every concern that has been raised on this board thus far. We are animals. We are self-interested. Why do we spend so much on military technology? Because animals take what they want. Why do we continue to grow without concern for the future? Because constant growth is the backbone of evolution. Why do we resist change even in the face of impending doom? Because we are deer walking the same path through the forest even if it makes it easier for the hunter to find us. This is reality, the truth of human nature. To allow it to anger you and upset you is to deny reality. Accept it. Move on. This is who we are.

  • Thor

    “If they’re successful, it will be the first time this has been done in a controlled way–in a lab rather than a nuclear bomb, that is–and could eventually lead to fusion power plants”

    Wrong, the source of nuclear power in atom or H-bombs comes from nuclear fission, not fusion. Fusion is a far more safe and stable energy source — if only the temperature is kept high enough, the process can go on for quite some time.

  • http://bradphi.com Bragr

    I think that work like this is a great step foreward for humanity, because we can look at sci fi and say, “hey that would be great.” But this is actually moving forward and saying, “hey, lets get that.”

  • dahal amit

    i think its great ! keep it up

  • AlanC

    Actually (Jim Hopf) the gas turbine is not a good example of weapons to civilian use. They’ve been around as power sources since about the time of the First World War. Turbines themselves go back to Hero of Alexandria in the first century AD. It took a lot of development and reduction in size and mass to make an aircraft powerplant out of one.

  • amy

    @Thor, there are other types of nuclear bombs triggered with a fusion reaction, you’re on the internet now, there is no reason not to check your facts

  • Wladimir Guglinski

    GUGLINSKI’S NEW THEORY EXPLAINS COLD FUSION

    Based on the new nuclear model of Quantum Ring Theory, a new theory is proposed to explain the results obtained by Pamela Mosier-Boss cold fusion experiment, published in last March.

    See the article in Peswiki:
    How zitterbewegung contributes for cold fusion in Pamela Mosier-Boss experiment:
    http://peswiki.com/index.php/Article:_How_zitterbewegung_contributes_for_cold_fusion_in_Pamela_Mosier-Boss_experiment

  • Wladimir Guglinski

    GUGLINSKI’S THEORY ON COLD FUSION CAN BE TESTED

    An email was sent to Pamela Mosier-Boss in 11 April 2009, suggesting to use an oscillator in her experiment.

    The email is ahead.

    From: Wladimir Guglinski (wladimirguglinski@hotmail.com)
    Sent: Saturday, April 11, 2009 3:46:25 PM
    To: pam.boss@navy.mil
    Cc: m_bernstein@acs.org; David Hestenes (hestenes@asu.edu); EDEL PONS (canmarrai@gmail.com)

    Dear Pamela

    My theory can be tested by your experiment.

    My idea is to use an oscillator capable to increase the oscillatory motion of the molecules D-D within the Pd lattice, by stimulating the resonance D-D.

    If you succeed to stimulate the resonance D-D , we have to expect a growth in the rate of fusion D-D and also in the rate of neutrons emission by unity of time.

    The oscillator I suggest is the following:

    1- A glass buble is fulfilled by heavy hydrogen (D-D molecules).

    The buble must be placed close to the Pd lattice deposited in the cathode.

    2- Two electrodes are connected inside the buble.

    3- A high voltage is applied to the electrodes, producing an electric discharge that crosses the gas of molecules D-D.

    4- The molecules D-D into the buble are excited, and they emit photons in a frequency which is a sub-multiple of the frequency oscillation of the molecules D-D that fulfill the Pd lattice.

    5- The molecules D-D within the Pd lattice get resonance with the frequency of emission by the D-D molecules into the buble, and the oscillation of D-D within Pd is stimulated to increase its amplitude.

    6- I suppose such stimulation of resonance may increase the velocity of D-D fusion within the Pd lattice.

    A SECOND ALTERNATIVE:
    You can use a laser that hits the molecules D-D within the glass buble, instead of using an electrical discharge.

    A THIRD ALTERNATIVE:
    The best would be to build a laser which emission is produced by D-D molecules. In such case there is no need to have a glass buble, because the laser would be applied directly to the region of Pd lattice.

    Perhaps you have to try the three alternatives.

    It’s my opinion you should have to try it.

    After all, we are in front to a new Physics, and we have to try any new idea if it makes sense.

    Good luck in your attempt, if you decide to do it.

    Regards

    Wladimir Guglinski

  • Roy Hamaoki

    Nuclear fusion for power? Lets take a step back and examine the environ,mental impact. It seems many have missed the cause of “global warming” altogether. Why is the surface of the dearth getting warmer? It is because there is more energy released on the surface than that which is radiated away. We are releasing the energy of the sun gathered on the surface of the earth eons ago (oil, gas, coal) on to the surface of the earth in addition to the energy being collected from the sun. Nuclear energy? Sure it is “clean” but it is additional energy that is added to the total energy that must be gotten rid of if the earth is to maintain the present temperature. Greenhouse effect? It may be a factor but I believe that unless the total of the energy input to the earth is balanced by energy radiated or lost from the earth, all the ‘green proposals’ are useless.

  • Tony

    I am not in any way, shape, nor form qualified to judge the outcome of this possible breakthrough. I do have questions though.
    1) How are you going to keep the reaction from becoming self substantial and igniting our atmosphere?
    2) When is this going to happen, or has it already?
    3) Why do people think that Solar energy is better than fusion? THE SUN IS FUSION.
    4) Is there anything else that should be published to lose some other idiot comments (like mine)?

  • Tom

    The cause of global warming is too much CO2 in the atmosphere and the eroding of the ozone layer. It is the Sun that is causing the warming, via a greenhouse effect, not heat produced by humans being trapped.

    If fusion as proposed by the NIC/NIF is possible, and if it can be harnessed, it will solve all industrial and household energy problems permanently. This type of energy production will help to eliminate the cause of global warming.

  • http://earthlink.net Sally Walker

    If any of the thousands of nuclear war heads go off and explode we’re done for 6,000,000,000 people will die that’s all of the Earth’s human population including you

  • RJ

    Sorry Sally, but that would only happen if ALL of the nukes went off, not just one. I’m not saying its a good thing, but countries like Korea are test detonating nukes all of the time, and we are still here. And the only big one scheduled is the NIF in late 2012… Oprah and her staff may be the only survivors since her spacecraft will be on its way to wherever she’s going by then. Oops, I forgot this is supposed to be a serious discussion…

  • http://www.pixoneo.com Devis site

    En serions nous là si nous n’avions pas découvert “la bombe” ??

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