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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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Far to the west of the North American continent, a team of scientists in a state-of-the-art nuclear facility have crafted the most powerful laser ever.  Using a crazy disco apparatus they plan to concentrate the energy of this super weapon against a miniscule capsule of exotic material.  By doing so, they hope to ignite a nuclear fusion reaction–the colossal source of energy which powers the stars themselves. These bold men and women are on a quest to leash the fires of heaven.  

Am I making all this up to boost ratings?  Not at all: it’s the mission statement of the National Ignition Facility (NIF) run by Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in Livermore California.  Being level-headed scientists, they have stated their agenda more prosaically (although only slightly).  Here’s the explanatory statement from their (really cool) website:

NIF, a program of the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), will focus the intense energy of 192 giant laser beams on a BB-sized target filled with hydrogen fuel, fusing the hydrogen atoms’ nuclei and releasing many times more energy than it took to initiate the fusion reaction. NIF is capable of creating temperatures and pressures similar to those that exist only in the cores of stars and giant planets and inside nuclear weapons.  Achieving nuclear fusion in the laboratory is at the heart of the directorate’s three complementary missions:

  • Helping ensure the nation’s security without nuclear weapons testing (see National Security)
  • Blazing the path to a safe, virtually unlimited, carbon-free energy future (see Energy for the Future)
  • Achieving breakthroughs in a wide variety of scientific disciplines, including astrophysics, materials science, the use of lasers in medicine, radioactive and hazardous waste treatment, particle physics and X-ray and neutron science (see Understanding the Universe).

So they certainly have lofty goals and they also possess a facility that looks like science fiction.

To approximate the heat and pressure of stars and hydrogen bombs, the scientists use an ultraviolet laser, which for about 20 billionths of a second can generate 500 trillion watts. They will blast a pea sized gold cylinder containing the hydrogen fuel.  According to a press release from two days ago, the system is now operational.  The first test experiments are going well. To quote the facility director, Ed Moses, concerning the first integrated experiments,  “From both a system integration and from a physics point of view, this experiment was outstanding. This is a great moment in the 50-year history of inertial confinement fusion. It represents significant progress in our ability to field complex experiments in support of our NNSA Stockpile Stewardship, Department of Defense, fundamental science and energy missions.”

The NIF scientists will now begin a series of experiments which will hopefully culminate in nuclear fusion later this fall.

Unfortunately if the scientists don't wear bell-bottoms and play the Bee Gees all the time, the system goes off line.

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