Inside NIF, a football-field sized array of lasers. (NIF)
Inside NIF, a football-field sized array of lasers. (NIF)

Nuclear fusion is the holy grail of clean energy. It’s the energy the sun runs on. It doesn’t generate greenhouse gases or nuclear waste. It’s also been pretty much out of reach for mere mortals like us to create. But Tuesday, physicists at Lawrence Livermore National Lab’s National Ignition Facility said they’ve taken a significant step.

NPR gets into the details:

The laser is known as the National Ignition Facility, or NIF. Constructed at a cost of more than $3 billion, it consists of 192 beams that take up the length of three football fields. For a brief moment, the beams can focus 500 trillion watts of power — more power than is being used in that same time across the entire United States — onto a target about the width of a No. 2 pencil.

The goal is fusion: a process where hydrogen atoms are squeezed together to make helium atoms.

The milestone that scientists published today in the journal, Nature, is this: more energy is coming out of that pellet of fuel than they’re putting in. But it’s not more energy than is in all those lasers overall. Only about one percent of all the lasers’ energy is actually reaching the fuel.

“You can think about this as a proof of principle,” Livermore Lab physicist Denise Hinkel told KQED. “Once we’ve performed the proof of principle it opens up the horizon and opportunities for different creative ways to use it.”

Science News calls it a “modest milestone“:

The reactions… produced nearly 10 times as much energy as the previous record for laser fusion research. But they still fall well short of recouping the energy supplied by the world’s most powerful laser.

“It’s a very important milestone,” says Steven Rose, a plasma physicist at Imperial College London. “However, there are many other milestones to pass.”

After scientists completed the experiment last fall, it generated some breathless headlines. This article from Science gives some perspective.

In the past, NIF has come under criticism for falling short of expectations. It cost $5 billion (that’s construction plus operating costs), and missed its target of achieving ignition by October, 2012.

Want more NIF? Here’s a video KQED produced about it before it opened.

  • Muell Halde

    Not much mention of the radioactive byproducts or other hazards of this technique. Or where they’ll find enough deuterium or tritium to scale it up. But suppose someone does find a fuel source for this…and they set up the reactor somewhere in outer space, close enough to Earth that they can beam the energy home and far enough away leave all the dangerous stuff “out there”*1! Of course, they’ll have to scheme up a way to collect all that beamed energy and turn it into electricity so we can use it, too.*2

    Imagine. Remote Nuclear Fusion. An idea whose time has come…about 5 billion years ago.

    *1. The sun. *2. Photovoltaics. Stop wasting money on NIF.

  • Steven Magana-Zook

    Fusion reactions are a big step forward compared to the *fission* reactions taking place in current nuclear power plants. For example: yes fusion does create radioactive by-products but that radiation is confined to the power plant itself[1] (unlike fission where the radioactive waste is stored off-site), the radioactivity has a lifetime of only 50-100 years compared to 1000s of years for todays radioactive waste [1], “Deuterium is extracted from abundant seawater, and tritium is produced by the transmutation of lithium, a common element in the Earth’s crust and oceans.”[2], and a fusion power plant would “produce no greenhouse gas or other noxious emissions, operate continuously to meet demand, and would not require geological disposal of radioactive waste. A fusion power plant would also present no danger of a meltdown.” These power plants would be built in this country, to power our country [3]. Other countries are also pursing fusion power plants because it is a path toward real energy security (a major cause of global conflict and global pollution) [4]. We need to continue the research so that we are not left behind and continually energy insecure.

    [1] http://www.efda.org/faq/does-fusion-give-off-radiation/

    [2] https://lasers.llnl.gov/science/energy-for-the-future

    [3] https://life.llnl.gov/delivering_life/index.php

    [4] http://fusionforenergy.europa.eu

  • Alan Ragsdale

    As I understand it, there is no hazardous or radioactive by products. Deuterium is found in abundance in salt water. Given they are at 99% wasted energy, it seems like we have a long road to a useful resource?

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