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Buried among today’s ghastly news stories was an interesting micro-nugget of potentially good news: the National Ignition Facility at Lawrence Livermore Lab in California managed to trigger a 1.35 Megajoule reaction by firing an ultraviolet laser array into a tiny target of nuclear fuel. Now Doc-Brown-style engineers/mad scientists might scoff at that number since 1.35 Megajoules is about the same amount of kinetic energy as in a Con Edison Truck rolling down a gentle hill. However the National Ignition Facility is meant to test colossal forces in tiny, manageable packages (it is putatively designed to model the extreme temperatures and conditions of nuclear weapons without requiring actual nuclear testing).

The real purpose of the National Ignition Facility is to try to leapfrog the moribund engineering quest for usable fusion energy. I wrote an overly optimistic piece about the place over a decade ago and have barely heard anything about it since then aside from a story about how they finally got their laser array to work right back in 2012. To briefly recap the methodology of this process, here is a simplified description. Scientists fire a burst of extremely intense energy through the futuristic laser array for 20 billionths of a second. This energy is theoretically meant to vaporize a small gold capsule containing deuterium and tritium. If lasers strike the gold correctly, the disintegrating gold releases a high-energy burst of x-rays which compact the capsule and force the hydrogen isotopes to fuse. On August 8th, for the first time, this process mostly worked and the reaction actually yielded 70% of the energy used to fire the lasers (an enormous improvement from the previous 3% maximum which had been the benchmark for years).

Apparently the breakthrough involved improving the size, shape, and microscopic surface preparation of the capsule (classic engineering stuff!). Nuclear engineers are quick to point out that the result still leaves us a long way from figuring out how to produce the clean abundant energy which humankind desperately needs to solve our (rapidly growing) problems and needs. Yet they also have a long-absent glint in their eyes and a new spring in their step. This is real progress in the search for a goal which has proven maddeningly elusive. Let’s keep an eye on the National Ignition Facility, and, maybe, just maybe this would be a worthy place to spend some more of our national budget.

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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