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Preamplifiers picture - inside the National Ignition Facility

This target chamber at the U.S. National Ignition Facility was meant to be a corridor for almost limitless power from fusion energy. But the energy pumped in by the lasers still exceeds the energy created by the fusing hydrogen. Funding for continued research is uncertain.

Photograph courtesy Damien Jemison, LLNL

Tim Folger

For National Geographic

Published July 26, 2013

Part of our weekly "In Focus" series—stepping back, looking closer.

A large banner hangs from the front of the stadium-size building that houses the world's most powerful array of lasers: "Bringing Star Power To Earth."

For the past four years, physicists at the National Ignition Facility, or NIF, in Livermore, California, have been trying to harness nuclear fusion, the same reaction that powers the sun and the stars. Supporters of the $3.5 billion facility believe that a successful outcome to the experiments could help usher in an era of nearly limitless energy. But the ambitious fusion research program at NIF now faces an uncertain future, both politically and scientifically.

On the political side, President Obama's proposed budget for fiscal year 2014 would reduce funding for fusion experiments at NIF by more than $60 million, putting it nearly 14 percent below the 2013 level. Key committees in both the House and Senate favor restoring part of NIF's funding, and a compromise will eventually emerge, but budget constraints aren't the only challenge facing NIF. Physicists working on the project expected to have succeeded in their quest for fusion energy by now. They're currently struggling to figure out what went wrong.

Tiny Stars, Big Lasers

There's an old joke about fusion: It's the energy source of the future, and always will be. Physicists have been pursuing the dream of controlling fusion energy for some 60 years now. Unlike nuclear fission, which releases energy when the nucleus of a heavy atom like uranium splits into two lighter nuclei, fusion generates energy when two separate light nuclei smash together to form a single, heavier nucleus. In fission, the energy comes from breaking the bonds of force that held the original heavy atom together; with fusion, the energy source is more esoteric—some of the mass from each of the two light nuclei is converted directly into energy when they fuse, in accordance with Einstein's iconic law, E=mc2.

Both fission and fusion release tremendous amounts of energy. One pound of enriched uranium used in a conventional nuclear power plant contains about as much energy as a million gallons of gasoline. Fusion yields even more energy—about three to four times as much as fission reactions. And while fission reactions generate waste that remains radioactive for millennia, fusion's byproducts become harmless within decades. Moreover, the world possesses a nearly infinite source of fusion fuel—the hydrogen atoms found in water.

Unfortunately for the world's energy needs, fusion presents far greater technical challenges than fission, which physicists mastered in the 1940s. It takes relatively little energy to split a nucleus—fission can even happen spontaneously. But for fusion to occur—that is, to force two nuclei to join—physicists must replicate the hellish temperatures and pressures found inside stars.

 

The inside of a fusion test chamber.
Scientists access the NIF target chamber using a service system lift. "I've dedicated my life to this," says Ed Moses, principal associate director. "I'm committed to understanding it."

Photograph courtesy Philip Saltonstall, LLNL

NIF seeks to do that with 192 giant lasers, which occupy a space as large as three football fields. Fired simultaneously, the laser beams blast a peppercorn-size speck of frozen hydrogen suspended in a 30-foot-wide target chamber with about 500 trillion watts of power—about 1,000 times the amount of energy used by the entire United States during that same few trillionths of a second. (Because the lasers fire so briefly, NIF uses only about $20 of electricity for each burst.) Crushed to less than a thousandth of its original volume, the hydrogen becomes 100 times denser than lead and hotter than the center of a star; the nuclei fuse and release bursts of energy.

According to NIF's computer simulations, the fused hydrogen should generate more energy than the lasers put in—a process called ignition. Nature, unfortunately, has stubbornly refused to cooperate. There has been no ignition at the National Ignition Facility.

When physicists first turned on all the lasers at NIF in February 2009, they set a goal of reaching ignition by October 1, 2012. NIF's lasers routinely cause fusion, but the energy pumped in by the lasers still exceeds the energy created by the fusing hydrogen. The failure to meet that ignition deadline is the main reason the President, with the support of at least some in Congress, decided to cut NIF's budget.

"From a back-of-the-envelope calculation, the lasers do deposit enough energy onto the hydrogen pellet to do the job," said Robert Rosner, a physicist at the University of Chicago and the former director of Argonne National Laboratory. "The $64,000 question—actually a lot more than $64,000—is, why is the actual energy captured by the pellet in its implosion so much lower than that, by close to a factor of ten?"

Like a Leaky Piston

Ed Moses, the photon science principal associate director at NIF, says the researchers there are focusing on solving two critical problems. For ignition to occur, the hydrogen pellet must remain perfectly spherical as the lasers compress it. Using X-ray cameras to track the imploding hydrogen, physicists have found that the pellet deforms just as fusion starts. It assumes a lumpy, clover shape, a sign that the hydrogen is losing heat and pressure during its compression. "It's like a leaky piston, and the pressure doesn't keep going up," says Moses. The other problem concerns the thin plastic shell that encases the hydrogen fuel. Bits of it might be mixing with the hot imploding hydrogen, cooling it and squashing ignition.

 

A polished capsule.
The laser beams blast a peppercorn-size speck of frozen hydrogen with about 500 trillion watts of power—1,000 times the amount of energy used by the entire United States during that same few trillionths of a second.

Photograph courtesy LLNL

"We have shown our ability to compress the diameter of the fuel to where it would ignite if it were round, which is something people would have found unbelievable a few years ago," says Moses. "What we haven't shown yet is that we can get the shape we need as we go in, and that we can prevent mixing."

A recent report by the National Research Council recommended that NIF be given three more years to solve its problems and determine whether the facility is even capable of achieving ignition. Some critics argue that NIF needs to adopt a fundamentally different research strategy, a critique endorsed by the report. David Hammer, a physicist at Cornell University, says the NIF team treated their fusion experiments like an engineering project, and assumed that they could achieve ignition if they tweaked the lasers just right from one "shot" to the next.

"It was misplaced confidence," said Hammer. "They would not accept that the different stages of the experiments were not well understood, and they went on to the next step anyway." The NIF researchers should have been more systematic, he said, starting at lower energies to make sure the computer predictions matched reality. "If they didn't get it right at some low level, then figure out what's wrong, because it's a lot easier to figure things out when you're not driving an experiment to its limits. And once you've understood it at say, half-energy, then you gradually build up and see how the experiment moves away from predictions of the computer code. I think if they had started a more science-oriented program in 2009, when the lasers were finished, they'd be a lot closer to ignition now."

NIF isn't the only fusion project competing for federal dollars. The United States is also investing in an international collaboration that plans to harness fusion using a completely different strategy from NIF's. Now under construction in France, ITER, short for International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor, will use powerful magnetic fields to compress a plasma—essentially hydrogen gas heated to such high temperatures that the electrons and protons in the hydrogen fly apart—until the protons fuse. The $20 billion project, which is scheduled to begin its first experiments in November 2020, aims to produce ten times the amount of energy needed to run it. But that 2020 deadline is likely to recede, given that President Obama's budget would cap future United States contributions to ITER at $225 million. The budget would also cut funds for a fusion laboratory at MIT, one of the three American projects conducting experiments related to ITER.

A final decision on NIF's funding is months away, as budget wrangling continues on Capitol Hill.

"Right now we're in the era of incremental government," said Representative Eric Swalwell, a Democrat, whose district includes the facility at Livermore. "We govern by crisis these days, which is really unfortunate, because while science is very unpredictable, when it comes to funding, scientists need certainty."

Nuclear Weapons and Getting to the World Series

Even with the proposed budget cuts, NIF will continue to operate for decades. Achieving ignition is only one aspect of the lab's mission. Its primary purpose—one that will most likely overshadow fusion research in the years ahead—is to enable the United States to maintain its stockpile of nuclear weapons. The country has observed a ban on explosive testing since 1992, and classified work at NIF tests components of nuclear weapons without the need to blow anything up. That aspect of NIF's research has broad bipartisan support, and the President's budget for 2014 would increase funding for the lab's weapons-testing program.

But ignition is the game-changing research that inspires most of the physicists who work at NIF.

"I've dedicated my life to this," said Moses. "I'm committed to understanding it. I think it's likely we'll work through all these issues. We have this three-year time line we've agreed to. If we're funded and can do our experiments, we think we can explore this phenomenon pretty completely in that time period. In sports, over a long season, some things go well, sometimes you boot the ball. The question is, how do you get to the World Series? And that's what we're trying to do."

This story is part of a special series that explores energy issues. For more, visit The Great Energy Challenge.

54 comments
D. Taylor
D. Taylor

The energy is there!  It just needs a little bit more finesse than they were hoping :-)  "All things excellent are as difficult as they are rare."

Just as a comparison...The f-35 project is up to 1.5 trillion dollars.  It'll be the best way yet for everyone to drop multi-billion dollar turds on each other.  If the government spent that kind of money on fusion we might be somewhere.

Scott Kramer
Scott Kramer

Fusion energy sounds great. But for all the hand-wringing over budget shortfalls we as a society still mostly ignore the low-hanging fruit. Solar power doesn't require multi-billion dollar expenditures for some as yet unrealized application. It's even readily available for residential installation. Although solar is still relatively expensive, millions of households could afford it. But fly over the prosperous neighborhoods of any U.S. metro area and, except for pool heaters, notice the almost complete absence of "star power."

Donald David
Donald David

I am so happy to have some way of development...

Mark Langdon
Mark Langdon

- Reply to Richard Alexander:

I built everything from hardware ordered on eBay.  You need to know all about high vacuum, and high voltage.  I made two videos of the system running.  Search on Youtube using "fusor canada IEC", and first video should be my "FusorRunCloseup.avi" file.   You can also check out website "www.fusor.net".  It was a big help, an open source community of folks who shared results.   Many devices have been built in USA.   I had no academic support, but I did borrow a beaker of high vacuum grease from the IQC lab guys (they were in the lowest level of the old Physics building at Univ. of Waterloo.  I think now they have their own building and lab.   Oh, the mainstream physics guys will not touch fusion with a 50 meter rod - they fear tainting their reputations.  Anything not quantum related is viewed as either chemistry, or junky "cold fusion" bad science.   Physics today is like medicine, in that it is entirely about money.  It's pretty sad, actually.  If you want a physics guy to return your email, find out what he is working on, and tell him you are writing as part of the evaluation of his latest grant request.  He'll get back to you, and be quite helpful.  It's all a big money game now.  Good luck. 

- M. Langdon

neal thompson
neal thompson

Wouldn't equal pressure from all sides solve the deformation of the hydrogen sphere? Don't they have data on how stars form and therefore the data of what the density and pressure are when ignition takes place?

But what do I know being a psychology major. lol

Mark Goldes
Mark Goldes

Fossil fuels can be left behind much more rapidly than might be imagined.

Revolutionary new technologies are en-route that can turn future cars into power plants, able to sell electricity when suitably parked. No wires needed. Cars, truck and buses might even pay for themselves.

Since these are hard to believe breakthroughs, a means has been required to increase support for the best of them.

An engine has been invented that needs no fuel. It could trigger a perpetual commotion.

See NO FUEL ENGINE at www.aesopinstitute.org

Since these engines will not get hot, after a prototype is validated by an independent lab, small plastic desktop piston engines are planned that will run a radio and recharge cell phones.

Metal versions are expected to power homes 24/7 and replace diesel generators. They might even provide on-board recharge for electric cars.

Making the "impossible" possible will open a surprisingly practical path to rapid reduction in the need for fossil fuels.

Mark Goldes
Mark Goldes

Cold fusion is real. Pion fusion may prove more practical than other hot fusion systems. 

See CHEAP GREEN at www.aesopinstitute.org 

Cold fusion had its 18th annual conference this past week.

Pion fusion is begin developed in Australia, Japan and the UK. Scroll way down on that segment of the website to learn a bit about it.


Ken Albertsen
Ken Albertsen

Let's no forget that old word; 'conservation.'  All the debates about energy concern using ever increasing amounts of it.  We, as a species, can get by comfortably with using a lot less of it.  Try it at home, and then tell you neighbors about it:  'One person, one gizmo' (lights included)

Ahmad Cerial
Ahmad Cerial

WAMSR -- a Waste-Annihilating Molten Salt Reactor. WAMSR it is a 500 MW molten salt reactor that converts high-level nuclear waste into electric power. NUCLEAR WASTE , according to the researchers it could power the whole world in decades! more than that. LFTR is also a great alternative, which uses thorium for fuel, thousand times more energy density than uranium. 

I am just baffled, ashamed of why we don't look into more innovative ways to a better nuclear FISSION energy efficiency reactors, we are using old tech today to achieve nuclear fission, that costs tremendous amount of money. It is a MUST we need to implement this. Nuclear fusion is decade maybe 100 years away. We need realistic alternatives. 

Part of the problem is why we don't have new nuclear fission tech is, it would undermine the nuclear tech companies, it would ruin there business. It is not easy. Plus we have the "environmentalist" we are in for the same cause, but they think a sustainable energy future without nuclear technology is the right thing. That is total bs. 

Investors need to look at this, make it happen. The blue print is ready. Make it happen now. 

transatomicpower(dot)com/company.php 


Maxwell Bancroft
Maxwell Bancroft

It is time to change over to Helium 3 or Thorium fusion technology that may be do able

Frank Nolo
Frank Nolo

Can someone call these guys for me and ask them if they would like to know the proper way to achieve ignition.  I can sell them the answer for $68,000 (sorry not interested in more as I only take what I need to wet my beak).  But the caveat is that if you want me to keep it secret from the Middle East, you must trade me world peace and assured Middle East stability for it, because if i sell it to US for $68,000, I am also obligated to sell it to the Middle East for the same amount of money.  In Islam, you must always treat all your wives equally.

cryptomedia-dot-com

Page Turner
Page Turner

With all the Silicone Valley money, seems that Gates, Zuckerberg, Schmit, Buffet and the lot could fund this with their pocket change.

Gary Harkness
Gary Harkness

Great stuff.  Clean and plentiful power is what we need.  Minor point, though...you refer to Obama's budget for 2014.  No budget has been passed by the Obama administration in over 4 years and we probably shouldn't expect one next year..

yanfei zhang
yanfei zhang

Fusion...it can be a good idea,though.It is also a good way to reduce the nuclear waste.However,we should pay more attention to the new application of the fusion---nuclear weapons.

Richard Alexander
Richard Alexander

"But for fusion to occur—that is, to force two nuclei to join—physicists must replicate the hellish temperatures and pressures found inside stars."

 No, they don't. My understanding is that they only have to accelerate protons to 4 keV to overcome their electrostatic repulsion. They are trying to do this with a brute-force approach, by heating a large quantity of material far beyond what is necessary, in hopes that a few particles will have the correct energies when they randomly collide, and subsequently fuse. The energy that all these facilities is dumping into their reaction mass is far in excess of what is necessary to make a fusion reaction happen, in an ideal arrangement. This is the premise of Inertial Electrostatic Confinement, which achieves fusion w/o extreme temperature or pressures.

Mark Holland
Mark Holland

Why don't we just build a reinforced steel  sphere 5 miles in diameter filled with water and then detonate fusion bombs in its middle, using the heat to drive turbines? Should only cost a few hundred trillion dollars and hey, it too might "change the world".

paul bedichek
paul bedichek

Skunk works has best fusion prospects also general fusion spinning lead ball hit with many hammers.The best approach is advanced fision reactors FHR,LFTR the Chinese are working on this while we waste money.The IFR was a waste eater the Clintons killed.

Peter Ateo
Peter Ateo

Whatever happened to Robert Broussard's WB6 spherical fusion reactor? I recall that it WORKED, sustaining fusion for several milliseconds (all that the capacitor bank could supply at that time).

He gave a talk at Google: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rk6z1vP4Eo8

I haven't watched in several years, so my facts may be skewed, but I recall it DID sustain fusion for as long as power was dumped in. He claimed it was 'closer' to reality than toroid designs. I can't assess the technical details, but watch and see if makes sense to any nuclear engineers out there.

Mark Langdon
Mark Langdon

We really need to get fusion working.   It is the key problem in physics now.  I built an Inertial Electrostatic Confinement (IEC) reactor in my basement, as a proof of concept device, back in 2006,  It works, and generates about 1 million neutrons per second, when running.  Just a physics experiment, uses deuterium gas, 25K DC volts, and a high-vacuum chamber, but it is actually possible to confirm D2-D2 fusion.   Energy output above input is less than a nanowatt, but it actually works.  I was 18th amateur in world, and first in Canada, to get a verified fusion reaction with my IEC device.    By 2013, I really expected more progress in fusion research.   But it seems we are still messing about - both the big budget and the garage experimenters.  I wish I could get just a tiny fraction of NIF's budget - I would try to replicate Bussard's magnetic confinement device.   But no chance of that.   I just hope someone somewhere makes some progress.

- M. Langdon

Doug L
Doug L

peppercorn needs a different shape?

Joe Michael
Joe Michael

Hmm fund groundbreaking scientific research? I dunno about that. But by all means lets continue to pour money into maintaining cold war levels of nuclear warheads in case we need to destroy the earth. Sad

John Williams
John Williams

I hope that they have considered the obvious cause of fusion failure:  As the  target is compressed, its atoms continue to vibrate, and at randon, the shape of the target becomes asymmetrical and the compression efficiency declines.

One solution MIGHT be to supercool the target to near absolute zero before attempting ignition.

John C.
John C.

This should be the number one energy priority for the U.S. with funding to match.

Todd Brown
Todd Brown

@Maxwell Bancroft Not a lot of Helium 3 avaiable, we foolishly use most of our helium reserves to make party balloons float for few days.  As it is we have to refine the hydrogen in seawater to get the deuterium needed for lower temperature fusion.  Both refining processes take energy and lower the net output of a reactor.

Thorium would be fission and that gets back to long term waste disposal as a problem.

Todd Brown
Todd Brown

@Gary Harkness Amazing how this story could be political.  Congress won't pass a budget, they rather just pass funding bills that are loaded with pet projects.  After all it is more important to get re-elected than it is to actually do the job of governing.

Sandra Hayden
Sandra Hayden

@Gary Harkness ask the republican House what they're doing. oh that's right, they're regulating women's reproductive lives.

Maury Markowitz
Maury Markowitz

@Richard Alexander - This approach has been shown not to be possible, in a series of seminal papers by Todd Rider. Basically for any fusion system to be economically possible, energy from the reactions must be retained within the fuel to generate "self heating" - this is one of the definitions for "ignition" that NIF is attempting. Rider showed that if the fuel is not all at the same temperature, basic physical reactions between the fuel elements will cause enormous energy losses in the form of x-rays that will leave the fuel and not contribute to heating. His paper is widely accepted as the death-knell for non-equilibrium approaches like IEC, in spite of supporters continuing to claim otherwise.

Richard Alexander
Richard Alexander

@Mark Holland Similar serious proposals were made, several decades ago. They didn't go anywhere, because the radioactive contamination (if not the chemistry) were too much of a mess.

Swiftright Right
Swiftright Right

@Peter Ateo Owned by the navy.   If they suddenly launch an arsenal ship armed with batteries of hypersonic coil cannons and lasers you know it worked.

Richard Alexander
Richard Alexander

I'm curious how you would go about making an IEC. It sounds like a cool trick, but neutron showers are not something I need. Do you use an academic facility? How do you get them to cooperate? I can't even get the local physicists to return my emails!

Richard Alexander
Richard Alexander

@Mark Langdon I admire the IEC devices. However, we can do better. We can make it solid state. A researcher at Sandia Labs has already done so, producing the first solid-state neutron generator. He won a 2012 award from Sandia Labs for his invention.

Trevor Hoffman
Trevor Hoffman

Regarding your theory and Doug L.'s preceding, rather than using a peppercorn sized hydrogen pellet, and the variables you cite, how about if they tried using a larger pellet, say a marble or even a billiard ball, based on the supposition that the asymmetrical forces of compression would cumulatively even out as you got closer to the core...resulting in a more efficient fusion reaction.  Look at the sun...the outermost layer is a cauldron of currents and eddies, but if you could plumb it's depths, it becomes increasingly homogenous toward the core.  In other words, use the fuel pellet itself as a means to create the most symmetrical reaction possible.  If this works, and I hope the NIF guys read these posts, then does that mean we all share in a Nobel Prize for physics?

Sandra Hayden
Sandra Hayden

@John C.I always have to laugh when people complain about cost. I believe NIF funding has been $3.5 billion in total, since 1997. NASA gets $18 billion A YEAR and does not even fly a Space Shuttle anymore.

Todd Brown
Todd Brown

@Sandra Hayden @Gary Harkness That is just one of the few things they are doing most of the time the congress is doing nothing.  Except maybe passing bills the other side of the Capital won't pass or even put up for a vote.

Robert Steinhaus
Robert Steinhaus

Both Los Alamos and Lawrence Livermore National Lab produced preliminary designs for peaceful fission ignited fusion devices sometimes called PACER, the larger fusion portion of which produces only non-radioactive helium as nuclear waste. The small fission portion, in some instances as small as 1/4 of a gram of fissionable material, contained in these devices produced completely burned to short half-life fission products that decay to the natural radioactive background in less than 300 years.
PACER fission ignited fusion is real nuclear fusion that could be built today, with little or no technical risk.

Why not introduce practical PACER nuclear fusion in a commercial power plant 50 years before fusion will otherwise be available via other fusion technologies?

Peter Ateo
Peter Ateo

Broussard claimed  it was because the table-top WB6 didn't have the right volume to surface area. A 3-meter one might have broken even but he never got the chance to build it because of budget.

What made his design interesting was that it was very small - no cathedrals required. I've yet to hear anyone say that his design was NOT on the right track or had a fatal flaw. It seemed like the fusion physics was basically there and done but the materials engineering to withstand the punishment was going to be the next challenge.

16msec of fusion is basically forever, in terms of reaction speeds, so if Broussard was right, then his design had a very high chance of working when scaled to 3-5 meters.

At least someone should try scaling it, even if it melts after one second - it would prove the concept of greater energy return and attract billions of dollars to engineer one that COULD withstand the heat.

Sandra Hayden
Sandra Hayden

@Trevor Hoffman yes but the laser energy would be taken up by the outer layers and then might not be sufficient to compress at the core.

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