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One Step Closer to Nuclear Fusion Reactions

, KQED Science | February 12, 2014 | 2 Comments
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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.

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Category: Energy, Engineering, News, Physics

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About the Author ()

Molly Samuel joined KQED as an intern in 2007, and since then has worked here as a reporter, producer, director and blogger. Before becoming KQED Science’s Multimedia Producer, she was a producer for Climate Watch. Molly has also reported for NPR, KALW and High Country News, and has produced audio stories for The Encyclopedia of Life and the Oakland Museum of California. She was a fellow with the Middlebury Fellowships in Environmental Journalism and a journalist-in-residence at the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center. Molly has a degree in Ancient Greek from Oberlin College and is a co-founder of the record label True Panther Sounds.
  • 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.

  • 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?