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Scientists announce breakthrough in quest for fusion power

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February 13, 2014

A metallic case called a hohlraum holds the fuel capsule for the NIF experiments (Photo: E...

A metallic case called a hohlraum holds the fuel capsule for the NIF experiments (Photo: Eduard Dewald/LLNL)

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In a perfect example of beating swords into plowshares, a team of scientists at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory's (LLNL) National Ignition Facility (NIF) in California reached a milestone in the quest for practical fusion power using a process designed for the development and testing of nuclear weapons. The announcement in the February 12 issue of Nature claims that the team used the world’s most powerful laser barrage to produce a controlled fusion reaction where more energy was extracted from the fuel than was put into it.

If there is an ultimate engineering dream, then nuclear fusion is about as close as close as one can get. By literally harnessing the power of the stars, it holds the promise of what is, for all practical purposes, unlimited clean energy. Since man-made fusion was first demonstrated in 1951 with a boosted fission weapon, scientists and engineers have worked on some way to produce a practical fusion reactor instead of a hydrogen bomb.

The story of the fusion reactor is one of both great progress, but also constant frustration. When work began, the first reactor was predicted to be 25 years away. Since then and up until today, it’s still 25 years away. That’s because although nuclear fusion is relatively simple in theory, getting a controlled reaction started outside of the heart of a star is extremely difficult. The trick is to reach the “ignition” point, where the energy released by the reactor is greater than what’s put into it and the reaction becomes self-sustaining.

A fusion reactor works by simulating the conditions inside the Sun. Put simply, hydrogen atoms fuse in the Sun because its huge mass squashes the atoms together to form helium, releasing huge amounts of energy as the strong nuclear force that keeps them apart is overcome. A hydrogen bomb does the same thing, only with a fission bomb creating the necessary conditions for a millionth of a second.

Mock up of a hohlraum used to hold the plastic capsule (Image: Lawrence livermore)

A fusion reactor creates the right pressures and temperatures by taking an ionized plasma of the hydrogen isotopes deuterium or tritium and squeezing it using magnetic fields or lasers to set off the reaction. Not surprisingly, this requires huge amounts of energy, which set off various processes that heat the plasma to incredible temperatures.

The NIF breakthrough isn’t ignition, but it is a significant waypoint. The NIF team achieved what is called a “fuel gain”. Using an array of 192 high-energy lasers aimed at one tiny plastic sphere filled with a mixture of deuterium and tritium, the scientists subjected the droplet of cryogenic fuel to 1.9 megajoules of light to produce sun-like temperatures for a tiny fraction of a second. The result was a fusion reaction where the energy put into the fuel was exceeded by the energy that came back out – something that until now has never been achieved anywhere outside of a star or a hydrogen bomb, and is ten times greater than anything previously seen. The key to this is something called "boot-strapping".

Boot-strapping works by using alpha particles, which are helium atoms stripped of their electrons. Normally, when a fusion reaction produces such particles, they shoot off, carrying energy with them. In bootstrapping, the deuterium/tritium mixture is made to capture the alpha particles, which heats the plasma more and releases more alpha particles to increase the reaction.

According to the team, the key to boot-strapping was to keep the plastic shell that contains the fuel from disintegrating during compression under a high-energy laser pulse by altering the timing of the pulse to "fluff up" the ablative plastic, making it more resilient. The team believes that this disintegration in previous tests hindered the reaction and by modifying the laser they were able to prevent this.

"What's really exciting is that we are seeing a steadily increasing contribution to the yield coming from the bootstrapping process we call alpha-particle self-heating as we push the implosion a little harder each time,” says Omar Hurricane, lead author of the team’s report.

Ironically, power generation wasn’t the team’s primary goal. The NIF is designed to provide hard data for computer models that simulate the explosion of a nuclear warhead as part of the US program to produce new warheads and to ensure that the existing stockpiles remain safe and reliable. Up until the comprehensive nuclear test ban treaty, this would have been done using underground test explosions, but the US government now relies on lasers and supercomputers for the National Nuclear Security Administration's Stockpile Stewardship Program.

Eventually, the scientists hope the boot-strapping process will lead to ignition, but that remains in the future, as does practical application in a working commercial reactor. Currently, the experiment is only able to produce of net gain of about one percent. "There is more work to do and physics problems that need to be addressed before we get to the end," said Hurricane, "but our team is working to address all the challenges, and that's what a scientific team thrives on".

The team’s results were published in the journal Nature.

Source: Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory

About the Author
David Szondy David Szondy is a freelance writer based in Monroe, Washington. An award-winning playwright, he has contributed to Charged and iQ magazine and is the author of the website Tales of Future Past.   All articles by David Szondy
21 Comments

Wait, they got a positive Q value?

that in and of itself is HUGE, even if the net gain is small....however, one percent of how much juice NIF uses per shot is actually a decent chunk of kilowatts.

never heard of this alpha-capture method before, although its probably a technique specific to inertial confinement fusion, meaning it wont be useful for torroidal fusion or fusor designs or anything

Joseph Kitchin
13th February, 2014 @ 10:56 pm PST

HUGE QUALIFIER:

They achieved gain, but NOT "net" gain.

The target released more energy than was put into it by the lasers. It must be said that is an awesome achievement.

BUT, the energy *that powered the lasers* was greater than the energy they got out. So there was not an actual net gain. It took more energy, overall, to create the fusion than it released.

But this is a major milestone, no doubt about it.

Anne Ominous
14th February, 2014 @ 12:25 am PST

At the end of the Monty Python Spanish Inquisition programme, the cardinals are seen rushing to yet another opportunity to utter the immortal words: "No one expects the Spanish Inquisition!" The closing credits roll while they are en route and the programme eventually comes to a close just as they arrive at their destination. The words "Oh ******!" can be heard in the background.

Fusion energy production, be it hot, or even cold, reminds me of that sketch. If, or perhaps more optimistically, when, it arrives I think it will be too late. We desperately need a new supply of cheap, i.e. easy to extract, oil, not just electricity, and we need it yesterday. It is nice to know that milestones are being passed, albeit oh so slowly.

I just hope that when the technology arrives as a working process, exuding all shiny newness and capable of producing copious amounts of cheap energy, the scientists will not be heard repeating the "Oh ******!" expression.

Mel Tisdale
14th February, 2014 @ 01:46 am PST

People

There have been hundreds of experiments where fusion has been achieved in low temperatures (and small devices). And energy gain is about 300%. Some technologies are going to production lines.

Mariusz Gyan
14th February, 2014 @ 01:56 am PST

Sadly even if ignition is achieved and becomes practical, the average person will never see the benefit because it would mean the literal end to rationing energy by way of monetary payment. In other words, as long as there is a profit to be made, true advancedment will be stymied. The same can be applied to cancer cures, teleportation, advanced space travel, etc. Greed overcomes all.

ErinTarn
14th February, 2014 @ 03:56 am PST

"as part of the US program to produce new warheads and to ensure that the existing stockpiles remain safe and reliable."

Sorry, had to LOL at the irony of this statement when I read it. Warheads safe? And reliable? Aren't those two goals in direct conflict with one another? ☺

MzunguMkubwa
14th February, 2014 @ 05:31 am PST

It took a facility bigger than a football field to confine alpha particles to a fusion pellet long enough to get past breakeven. Inertial confinement fusion is going to look like big dinosaur when commenting technology l;tike low energy nuclear fusion reaction reactors come on the scene.

Vulvox has an aneurtronic fusion reactor on the drawing board that will cost hundreds of times less than laser ICF reactors or the biggest dinosaur of them all- the ITER tokamak type reactors.

We also have a performance materials program for developing materials that can be used in clean aneutronic LENR reactors.

http://vulvox.tripod.com/id10.html

Neil Farbstein
14th February, 2014 @ 08:42 am PST

From above: "[A star's] huge mass squashes the atoms together to form helium, releasing huge amounts of energy as the strong nuclear force that keeps them apart is overcome." No; and again, no. The stars mass provides a high density, where the high temperature will, occasionally, provoke a collision so direct and violent as to overcome the electric force ... or close enough for the strong nuclear force to come into play. The strong nuclear force is *used* not "overcome".

And PLEASE don't use the adverb "literally" to describe "harnessing". There are no horses in evidence.

piperTom
14th February, 2014 @ 09:44 am PST

A welcome step forward. But there remains the frustration that commercialization always seems 25 in the future…

By contrast, a US conversion to renewable energy would cost an estimated $26b/yr versus $120b/yr for the hidden costs of fossil fuels in the US PLUS $271 billion/yr. projected damage by climate change impacts (Ackerman & Stanton, Tufts U, 2008); (US Acad. of Sciences, 2010).

NREL's Chuck Kutscher makes that case at the 1 hour mark in a Jan 26 2014 talk: Climate Change: The Latest Findings and What We Must Do.

http://prairiefirenewspaper.com/2014-winter-lecture-series-january-26

moreover
14th February, 2014 @ 10:01 am PST

Our discovery of an inexhaustible, cheap, nonpolluting energy source will save humanity from itself but not all other life on this planet from humanity.

Nelson Hyde Chick
14th February, 2014 @ 11:04 am PST

In the 70's Kieve (Kip) Siegel sold all his companies and started KMS Fusion in Ann Arbor, MI. (Kieve Siegel founded Conductron as well as several other companies.)

He had a dream that relatively small Fusion powered generating stations would be scattered across the country providing power for each local area. He felt it would be safer to spread them out. I believe he was the one that came up with the glass bubbles that contained the Deuterium and or Tritium.

Unfortunately, Kip died long before his dream could come to fruition.

After his death I was looking for work and applied for a position at KMS. I had about 10 years of laser experience so I thought my chances were good. In fact it looked like I was going to get the job. The FBI was doing background checks for the security clearance and I was looking forward to joining the effort.

Since Kip wasn't there to pressure the powers that be in Washington the federal contract they were counting on never came through and I was not hired.

At that time KMS felt they were close to breakeven including the power into the laser. Their terminology was that they had neutron yield and that seemed to be significant. I didn't have any idea what it was about but they liked it.

I still wish things could have been different. It would have been exciting to have a hand in it. My experience in lasers began in 1961 when they were in their infancy and that was certainly exciting.

Mr E
14th February, 2014 @ 11:45 am PST

I expect the nuclear industry to tout this as yet another BIG (sic) reason to pursue future nuclear R&D that just might have a potential commercial value to society.

If the USA military complex were really smart they would admit they are doing this R&D to further their ability to reduce the size (not the yield) of future nuclear weapons. Then all the others that seek to catch up with US, would also have to spend Billions on similar programs which would make any future discoveries probably happen sooner, while at the same time benefit the nuclear industry by keeping the Solar Industry from installing Solar since less Gov't. monies would be spent on Solar (of all flavors)!

If the US tax payers were really smart, they would just say N☢ to any more nuclear R&D and demand that our Gov't. spend the money they would have spent on nuclear R&D on installing as much new Solar it can ASAP. This National Solarization Program (NSP) would also generate a huge number of good paying new US jobs while also reducing our dependance on both foreign and domestic Oil and Gas supplies.

Sadly the decisions will be made by elected officials that will be receiving big Nuclear Paybacks* of some form or another so expect to see Congress do the right thing, at least as far as the nuclear industry is concerned...

* http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=Nuclear+payback

Those that support nuclear power because nuclear power somehow supports them; no matter what the health implications or other "costs" are for others.

CaptD
14th February, 2014 @ 11:53 am PST

replicate big time as time moves on in testing alone, awesome

Stephen N Russell
14th February, 2014 @ 02:21 pm PST

The initial premise, stated as: "A fusion reactor works by simulating the conditions inside the Sun…" is patently ridiculous! WE CAN'T SEE INSIDE THE SUN. We can merely speculate about the weak & strong forces inside the sun.

Other than that, good work. Ever notice how scientists are always surprised at new developments??? I wonder why?

GogogoStopSTOP
14th February, 2014 @ 07:15 pm PST

the industralized world that uses most of the energy should cooperatively build solar generating plants all over the world and share the energy with the tropical / desert countrys that would be the biggest contributors. Give all people in the world a certain amount of free energy / electricity and charge for extra used.

this would probably cost not much more than the 20 years of war against the middle east trying to steal the oil.

tesmith47
14th February, 2014 @ 11:04 pm PST

Has anyone heard of Liquid Fluoride Thorium?

Endless power, proven process just needs to be refined.

USA isn't interested in developing the most promising tech.

Never mind they can buy it back from the Chinese in 15 years.

Dave82
15th February, 2014 @ 01:31 am PST

At least 10 years ago, I remember proposing a toast at a dinner party 'to the end of poverty' having read that morning that a torus device, I think in New York, had for a brief time yielded a net gain in energy (the difficulty was keeping the plasma magnetically caged and away from the wall of the vessel).

I read nothing subsequently to undermine the assertion of that achievement so this may be a first for a laser system but perhaps not a 'first ever'.

Oscem
16th February, 2014 @ 05:09 am PST

So, 50 years from now, 6 companies will have all the reactors and people will still pay though the nose. I'm still looking for an answer where any solution can cause a resurgence in expansion for humankind. This will be a good energy model going forward but has very little in the way of financial benefits for most of humanity,

The source may change, but the control of supply will remain the same.

Mike Dar
16th February, 2014 @ 05:52 am PST

@ Dave82

in answer to your question, Yes! What a pity we have not spent more time and energy on developing it. I suppose it is the perennial nuclear problem of vast hordes of grass coloured individuals gnashing their teeth and wailing "It's nuclear, it must be dangerous!" They have a lot to answer for.

Mel Tisdale
16th February, 2014 @ 06:49 am PST

This is a great step forward for LLNL.

But, if you want to produce nuclear fusion on a commercial scale, we need to go back to the process that was recommended by the scientific community in the 1970's - with " NO show stoppers " !!

RF Accelerator Driven Heavy Ion Fusion

The scientists say it can be on line ... in production ... in ten years. This is the 'Silver Bullet' the administration is looking for to solve the energy, economic, environment and national security problems of today.

It seems nobody knows about the work that was done by DOD at ANL and shelved in the 70's ... it could be a BIG energy source that could be clean and safe. But who needed it in the 70's?

Check it out at www.fusionpowercorporation.com

Harold Helsley
16th February, 2014 @ 10:26 am PST

If this is really a good candidate for grid power, why is it 100% funded from the military budget even though it is running ten years behind? What they want is a fusion weapon without Plutonium. The same investment in renewables or conservation would have saved many lives.

Bob Stuart
17th February, 2014 @ 08:43 am PST
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