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Longtime reader recall Ferrebeekeeper’s strange obsession with the National Ignition Facility at Lawrence Livermore Laboratory (which we have blogged about numerous times). When last we checked in with the National Ignition Facility (which is ostensibly designed to model the behavior of nuclear weapons, but which is really used to research useful mechanisms for generating power from nuclear fusion), the laboratory had successfully obtained a burning plasma by changing up the size and shape of the tiny gold pellet in which they enclosed the nuclear fuel. Great things seemed imminent!

And indeed, this week, the National Ignition Facility has finally made headlines around the world by obtaining more energy from a moment of nuclear fusion than the (enormous amounts of) energy which was used to power the reaction. The facility pointed its 192 super lasers at a tiny gold capsule filled with deuterium and tritium nuclear fuel. Then, for 20 billionths of a second, the lasers concentrated 500 trillion watts of energy on the nuclear fuel and presto! a moment of truly stellar energy output ensued (I wonder what sort of esoteric energy was released during this infinitesimal second). To quote the United States Energy Secretary, “Ignition allows us to replicate, for the first time, certain conditions that are only found in the stars and sun. This milestone moves us one significant step closer to the possibility of zero-carbon, abundant fusion energy powering our society.”

So far the newspapers and blathering heads on TV have all been stressing that the process is not yet ready for commercial use and emphasizing how long it takes to develop commercial procedures of any sort. MBA types call this phenomenon “the valley of doom” which describes a scenario wherein the government discovers something worthwhile and amazing, but trained MBA-economist types think that it will take longer than 10 years to develop commercial technology and therefor do not bother. Anything which takes more than 10 years is effectively non-existent to MBA people because (A) that is how financing works and (B) that is how they are indoctrinated by their shitty schools.

“The more we hurt the world, the happier we are!”

This case may prove an exception since the government (and all people of conscience) have a very strong incentive to move human society beyond fossil fuel dependency which is injuring life on Earth. Unfortunately, fossil fuel companies, Republicans, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and most of the world’s billionaires will now belittle this accomplishment and attempt to squelch it as quickly as possible (since their wealth and power are dependent on the fossil fuel economy). It is up to all of us (including you liberals in the back who have traditionally espoused that anything nuclear is fundamentally unwholesome) to make sure that we don’t squander this stupendous opportunity to move society forward and undo some of the terrible harm our never-ending thirst for dirty energy has wrought upon our beautiful world.

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Hopefully you enjoyed the 2022 Winter Olympics! Whatever you may have thought about the participants or the hosts (or winter sports in general), I don’t think anybody could complain that the Beijing competitions lacked old-school Olympic drama. Now that I have had a relaxing fortnight of watching the contest (on the sofa, as far from winter as I can get), I will try to blog more regularly! First of all, let’s get to some overlooked news from a few weeks ago.

The good news of the world tends to get overlooked either because it is quotidian, or because it is esoteric/perplexing (with equally incomprehensible ramifications). This news bulletin definitely falls into the latter category! Remember previous posts about the National Ignition Facility, a colossal laser array at Lawrence Livermore Laboratory which is experimenting with alternate methods of initiating nuclear fusion? There has been a update or two since I first wrote about the place a dozen years ago (sigh), but thus far the lab has not produced the desired results. Suddenly, however, events on the ground are moving more swiftly.

The National Ignition Facility attempts to bypass costly and difficult mechanisms to reach nuclear fusion (like, you know, setting off nuclear fission bombs or building magnetic doughnuts the size of Malta) by concentrating a prodigious amount of energy at a tiny nuclear fuel capsule by means of an array of 192 super lasers all aimed at the tiny capsule (you should maybe imagine that this is being explained by someone with chaotic white hair and a German accent). Thus far, progress has been slow and incremental (at best). Four weeks ago, however, the researchers changed the size and shape of the capsule, and they achieved a new milestone on the road to nuclear ignition: a burning plasma, in which the fusion reactions themselves are the primary source of heating in the plasma.

In some ways this was the goal of the National Ignition Facility–to get more energy out of their process than they put into it. However, now that the experiments are starting to truly pay off, scientists will be working even harder to maximize energy output and efficiency and further optimize the encouraging results. Sadly, this potentially world-changing news, has received limited media attention (aside from within the pages of, you know, Nature and Ferrebeekeeper), however, I have a feeling that much more news will be forthcoming from Livermore. Hopefully some of this news will capture the public attention since prodigious energy breakthroughs are exactly what we need to break free of the prison of fossil fuel consumption which world society remains trapped within. We will keep you updated as more information becomes available, but for now, for the first time in a while we can at least fantasize of a world of abundant cheap energy which does not cause environmental devastation.

OK. the fantasizing is over, now go back to watching Russia use oil and gas to kick Germany (and its EU underling partners) around. Oh, maybe keep an eye on the rising global temperature too. Gee whiz, why aren’t we spending more money on ignition research?

apollo16_earth_northamerica

Many people complain that the news is all bad.  That is not true at all, but good news is sometimes harder to quantify or follow than bad tidings—plus human progress tends to be incremental.  I bring this up because this week did feature a good news story—and Ferrebeekeeper has been following along (as best we can) for years. The nuclear scientists at the National Ignition Facility (a part of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory) have been attempting to use a vast laser array to heat/compress a deuterium and tritium fuel pellet to the extreme conditions necessary for nuclear fusion.

The container for the nuclear fuel

The container for the nuclear fuel

Nuclear fusion involves compressing/heating the elementary particles which make up atoms until the atoms fuse into new atoms.  Such a process releases outrageous amounts of energy but it does not start easily–indeed so much energy is required to begin the reaction that “hot” fusion typically requires a star or a nuclear fission detonator.  These items are dangerous and alarming to have lying around so scientists have been attempting to find a more controlled method of fusing atoms together.

The NIF Target Chamber

The NIF Target Chamber

Earlier this week the science journal Nature published a paper which details how NIF scientists finally managed to produce more energy than was initially put into the fuel pellet (albeit not into the overall system).  This does not sound overwhelmingly exciting—yet it is farther than nuclear engineers have got in 50 years.  To quote the amazingly named head scientist, Omar Hurricane, “We’ve assembled that stick of dynamite and we’ve gotten the fuse to light…If we can get that fuse to burn all the way to the dynamite, it’s going to pack a wallop.”

Just dream what we could accomplish with such energy!

Just dream what we could accomplish with such energy!

Abundant safe energy from nuclear fusion would be an astonishingly transformative innovation for humankind.  Immediately our principle economic and environmental problems would be forever altered.  Additionally having such a cosmic wellspring of energy available would allow us to embark on engineering works of a vastly greater scale than any known so far.

Planetary Engineering!

Planetary Engineering!

So, it is not easy to do what has never been done before. In October of 2010, I wrote about the National Ignition Facility, a joint scientific project run by Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in Livermore California.  The National Ignition Facility aims to recreate the heat and pressure of stars and hydrogen bombs on a microscopic controlled scale.   The project is ostensibly designed as a United States defense project to model the nation’s next generation nuclear arsenal without use of (treaty-prohibited) nuclear testing, but cognoscenti have long suspected that it is a way that our country can pursue fundamental energy and physics research despite the apathy (or outright animosity) of a do-nothing congress and politically divided citizenry.

One of four banks of giant capacitors which power the laser microburst

Unfortunately the facility experienced a series of setbacks, and the massive laser array did not deliver the promised energy output.  However, this month all that changed!  On July 5th the facility briefly powered up its 192 lasers to deliver a 1.85-megajoule blast that released more than 500 trillion watts of power. Although the laser beam was only active for a miniscule fraction of a second, during that brief time it was focusing a thousand times more energy than the rest of the entire United States was actively using.  Remember Doc Brown from “Back to the Future” shouting about “1.21 gigawatts!” and desperately running his hands through his hair? Well, a gigawatt is a billion watts.  This laser beam produced a 500 terrawatt blast–500 trillion watts.  So just imagine Doc shouting “1.21 gigawatts!” four hundred thousand plus times!

The successful test firing brings the NIF within tantalizing reach of their desired ignition breakthrough—the glorious moment when scientists flip a switch and create a controlled, contained fusion reaction.  Building such a “star in a jar” is the first step on a road to titanic engineering and energy-creation achievements which could reshape humanity’s place in the universe.

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