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Hohlraum geometry with a capsule inside through the cut-away of the hohlraum wall.

An H-bomb fuel capsule (orange orb) contained in a gold-plated, hollow pill called a hohlraum (silver cylinder) is hit with laser beams to create fusion energy.

PHOTOGRAPH BY DR. EDDIE DEWALD, LAWRENCE LIVERMORE NATIONAL LABORATORY

Dan Vergano

National Geographic

Published February 12, 2014

Energy researchers report a tenfold increase in power from laser fusion experiments in a study released Wednesday, a step closer to someday bottling the power of the sun.

The report from the U.S. Department of Energy's $3.5 billion National Ignition Facility (NIF) at the Lawrence Livermore (California) National Laboratory comes after a decade of disappointments. (See: "Fusion Energy Quest Faces Boundaries of Budget, Science.")

The report offers encouragement to long-frustrated efforts to harness fusion, which provides the punch in hydrogen bombs, as a plentiful source of pollution-free nuclear energy.

In the new experiments reported in the journal Nature by a team led by LLNL physicist Omar Hurricane, 192 high-powered lasers were fired at a gold-plated, hollow pill called a hohlraum. The hohlraum was coated on its inside wall with a tiny bit of frozen H-bomb fuel—a mix of heavy hydrogen isotopes isolated from seawater. The laser beams crushed the fuel, triggering a fusion reaction.

Overall, the experiments produced about 17 kilojoules of energy, "about the same as a skier going downhill at 36 miles [58 kilometers] per hour," Hurricane said. "We're talking about fusion energy coming out, more energy than was put into the fuel."

However, though the output exceeded the energy actually delivered to the fuel by the lasers, it was only about one percent of the total energy used to fire the lasers and in the rest of the experiment. "We're going to keep pushing," Hurricane said.

More heartening than the energy output were the signs of radioactive alpha particles seen emerging from the laser "shots" in the experiments. Energetic alpha particles colliding with fuel atoms and each other are the key to a self-sustaining fusion chain reaction—the "ignition" that is the goal of the National Ignition Facility.

But it will take a lot more of them. "This is a first step along the way to ignition, and the scientists are justly excited about it," said Charles Seife, author of Sun in a Bottle: The Strange History of Fusion and the Science of Wishful Thinking. "While this is an advance, it's still far short of what was expected of the NIF machine, and leagues away from anything that might be useful for generating energy."

Military Origins

Efforts to spark fusion reactions by rapidly compressing H-bomb fuel capsules with lasers were declassified in 1972. Laser fusion is not the only approach to fusion power; magnetically confined fusion, its main rival, has an even longer history and is the approach being taken at the ITER experimental power plant that is now under construction in southern France.

In laser fusion, the laser beams strike the interior walls of a hohlraum, releasing x-rays that crush the fuel atoms together to a density 100 times that of lead. That sparks a fusion explosion. The laser shots last only about 150 trillionths of a second.

By design, these shots mimic the reactions inside hydrogen bombs (which use small A-bombs powered by nuclear fission to generate the x-rays needed to create fusion). The NIF is part of the U.S. National Nuclear Security Administration's nuclear weapons complex. Its military role is to gauge the integrity of the U.S. nuclear weapons "stockpile" without conducting weapons tests, which ended in 1992.

In 2012, after a three-year effort to trigger ignition ended in failure, the NIF drew Congressional scrutiny and criticism from the Government Accountability Office. Those earlier attempts relied on laser shots that ramped up their power over the brief duration of the fusion reaction. (See related blog post: "Fusion: Maybe Less Than 30 Years Away, but This Year Unlikely.")

In the new experiments, the NIF team followed the opposite strategy, cranking up the laser power at the beginning and then ramping down. The idea was to spark the fusion reaction and then provide just enough energy to maintain it, Hurricane said.

The result was a more stable fusion reaction that produced the roughly tenfold increase in energy over past shots, as well as signs of the coveted alpha particles, Hurricane said.

The experiments "have cleared a hurdle on the road to nuclear fusion in the laboratory," said physicist Mark Herrmann of the Energy Department's Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, New Mexico. "To be clear, much work remains to be done," he added in a commentary accompanying the report.

No Predictions

Fusion power promises at least two advantages over other energy sources, according to the U.S. National Research Council: zero pollution and virtually unlimited energy. But over the last half century, fusion power has acquired a reputation as a technology forever two decades away.

Seife remains skeptical. "The entire history of laser fusion at Livermore is one machine after another failing to live up to expectations set by simulations and overoptimistic scientists," he said.

Whether the new approach at the NIF will ever produce ignition is an "open question," Herrmann said. The NIF team says it has to double the pressure on the hydrogen fuel in their experiments to trigger such an event. (Take the quiz: "What You Don't Know About Space-Age Energy.")

"I wish we could put a date on it," Hurricane said. "It really is research. We'd be lying to you if we told you a definite date."

Follow Dan Vergano on Twitter.

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

11 comments
Kelfin Planck
Kelfin Planck

After founding Magnetic Power Inc in the mid-eighties, Mark Goldes and MPI proceeded to  develop most of the fraudcraftings which would serve as Goldes’ offerings in fraudcraft for the next thirty years, not only at MPI, but also at Chava Energy LLC,  and at his so-called “Aesop Institute.” Goldes’ partnership with Hagen Ruff, the other Co-founder (as well as CEO) of Chava Energy LLC, gave the Goldes-MPI fraudcraft a new lease on life, and accordingly it may now be termed most properly the “Goldes-Ruff Fraudcraft.” For the past five years or more, while serving as a Co-founder and a Chief Officer of Chava Energy LLC, Goldes used his mgoldes @ chavaenergy.com email address as his Aesop Institute email address as well, at least until his very recent ejection from Chava Energy.  In practice, Goldes made continual use of Aesop Institute to bring investors to Chava Energy, which for five years has based its pretenses on nearly all the same fraudcraft used by Goldes at Aesop Institute. The common fraudcraft included the fraudcraftings of pretended development of water-fueled “Fractional Hydrogen” engines, of generators supposedly powered by Zero Point Energy, of “Ultraconductor” wire and “Ultraconductor” energy storage systems, and of strictly ambient heat engines – along with endless false claims that these concepts were currently being “prototyped,” and would soon provide wonderful alternatives to fossil fuels.

Mark Goldes’ “Aesop Institute” is simply an elaborate fraud. After founding Magnetic Power Inc in the mid-eighties, Mark Goldes and MPI soon  developed most of the fraudcraftings which would serve as Goldes’ offerings in fraudcraft for the next thirty years, not only at MPI, but also at Chava Energy LLC,  and at his so-called “Aesop Institute.” Goldes’ partnership with Hagen Ruff, the other Co-founder (as well as CEO) of Chava Energy LLC, gave the Goldes-MPI fraudcraft a new lease on life, and accordingly it may be most properly termed the “Goldes-Ruff Fraudcraft.” For the past five years or more, while serving as a Co-founder and a Chief Officer of Chava Energy LLC, Goldes used his chavaenergy.com email address as his Aesop Institute email address as well, at least until his very recent ejection from Chava Energy.  In practice, Goldes made continual use of Aesop Institute to bring investors to Chava Energy, which for five years has based its pretenses on nearly all the same fraudcraft used by Goldes at Aesop Institute. The common fraudcraft has included the same fraudcraftings of water-fueled “Fractional Hydrogen” engines, generators powered by Zero Point Energy, “Ultraconductor” wire, “Ultraconductor” energy storage systems, and strictly ambient heat engines – along with the same false claims that “prototypes” of all these concepts were being developed, and would soon provide wonderful alternatives to fossil fuels.

For five years, Hagen Ruff allowed Mark Goldes, a Co-founder as well as a Chief Officer of Chava Energy, not only to use his mgoldes @ chavaenergy.com email address to solicit loans to Goldes’ so-called “Aesop Institute,” but simultaneously to solicit loans to Aesop Institute and investments in Chava Energy in the course of discussions and communications with prospects who had reached Goldes by way of aesopinstitute. In effect, Ruff allowed Aesop Institute to become a fund-raising extension of Chava Energy. Starting in 2009, if not before, Goldes posted  thousands of fraudulent comments advertising the aesopinstitute website and promoting the Goldes-Ruff fraudcraftings on dozens of different websites. On Huffington Post alone, as the user “Overtone,” he posted over three thousand such comments. When people contacted Goldes after visiting the aesopinstitute website, they would learn from Goldes not only about Aesop Institute but also about Chava Energy, and Goldes would solicit loans to Aesop Institute or investment in Chava Energy, whichever the prospect preferred, at the same time. This was his standard practice for years. By allowing this entangling of Aesop Institute with Chava Energy LLC, Ruff has incurred responsibility not only for the false and fraudulent pretenses of Chava Energy, but for those of Mark Goldes’ “Aesop Institute” as well. For this reason, although neither the Kenneth Rauen strictly ambient heat engine pretense nor the Boris Kondrashov self-powered turbine pretense have been directly used or presented by Chava Energy, as they have by Aesop Institute, they still deserve full recognition within the ensemble of Goldes-Ruff fraudcraftings.

http://physicsreviewboard.wordpress.com/category/chava-energy-llc/

Kelfin Planck
Kelfin Planck

After founding Magnetic Power Inc in the mid-eighties, Mark Goldes and MPI proceeded to  develop most of the fraudcraftings which would serve as Goldes’ offerings in fraudcraft for the next thirty years, not only at MPI, but also at Chava Energy LLC,  and at his so-called “Aesop Institute.” Goldes’ partnership with Hagen Ruff, the other Co-founder (as well as CEO) of Chava Energy LLC, gave the Goldes-MPI fraudcraft a new lease on life, and accordingly it may now be termed most properly the “Goldes-Ruff Fraudcraft.” For the past five years or more, while serving as a Co-founder and a Chief Officer of Chava Energy LLC, Goldes used his mgoldes @ chavaenergy.com email address as his Aesop Institute email address as well, at least until his very recent ejection from Chava Energy.  In practice, Goldes made continual use of Aesop Institute to bring investors to Chava Energy, which for five years has based its pretenses on nearly all the same fraudcraft used by Goldes at Aesop Institute. The common fraudcraft included the fraudcraftings of pretended development of water-fueled “Fractional Hydrogen” engines, of generators supposedly powered by Zero Point Energy, of “Ultraconductor” wire and “Ultraconductor” energy storage systems, and of strictly ambient heat engines – along with endless false claims that these concepts were currently being “prototyped,” and would soon provide wonderful alternatives to fossil fuels.

http://physicsreviewboard.wordpress.com/category/chava-energy-llc/
 

Muell Halde
Muell Halde

Not much detail about 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.*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. 

Muell Halde
Muell Halde

Not much detail about 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.*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. 

Charles Bourgeois
Charles Bourgeois

" By design, these shots mimic the reactions inside hydrogen bombs (which use small A-bombs powered by nuclear fission to generate the x-rays needed to create fusion). "

So why not use the same approach by starting with a fission reaction to generate alpha particles and x-rays, followed by the laser to "jumpstart" the fusion reaction? Just a thought.

Mark Goldes
Mark Goldes

Hot fusion is a never ending money sink and ironically it is probably no longer needed.


Engines are being prototyped that are designed to run 24/7 on atmospheric heat, an untapped solar source of energy thousands of times as abundant as fossil fuels.

Fuel-free desktop piston engines will demonstrate that fuel can be cost-effectively superseded. See www.aesopinstitute.org


Most scientists doubt such engines are possible, since they believe the Second Law of Thermodynamics cannot be circumvented. However, a practical path toward such engines was opened in numerous papers by Jacob Wainwright more than 100 years ago. He was ignored until now. 


Piston engines needing no fuel by an inventor who earlier patented an engine that circumvented The Second law, but was commercially impractical, will prove Wainwright was correct. See SECOND LAW SURPRISES on the same website.


Once prototypes are completed and validated by independent labs, desktop engines that need no fuel can be scaled to provide emergency generators, power homes and propel every type of vehicle. They will open a fast path to rapid replacement of fossil fuels.


The average American family of four might save $8,000 per year - it that proves correct, a groundswell of public support will be unstoppable.

William Croft
William Croft

LENR (Low Energy Nuclear Reaction) prototype devices are making great strides this year.  Several companies are very close to commercialization.  See http://www.e-catworld.com

J Ashfield
J Ashfield

@Muell Halde  I'm a Physics A - Level student. We learnt where the deuterium and tritium come from. The deuterium comes from sea water (about 1 per 5000 water molecules) and tritium comes from firing a neutron into lithium to produce helium and other products along with tritium. So there is plenty of the fuel. There is very little waste compare to nuclear fission, the only waste is particles which have lost neutrons

Bill Collins
Bill Collins

Mark, although your unstoppable enthusiasm is admirable, we will believe it when we see it.

Bill Collins
Bill Collins

Just like hot fusion has been a few decades away from reality for a very long time, LENR has been close to commercialization for many years as well. I have been wrong enough to know better than to say never, but LENR is not likely to be our answer.

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