The Science of Sustainability

In Livermore, Still Waiting on Nuclear Fusion

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NIF's 192 lasers culminate inside this target chamber, which contains the hohlraum. Credit: NIF

The National Ignition Facility in Livermore, California, has been called a modern-day moon-shot, a project of "revolutionary science," and "the mother of all boondoggles."

NIF, as it's known, is a five-billion dollar, taxpayer-funded super laser project whose goal is to create nuclear fusion – a tiny star – inside a laboratory. But so far, that hasn't happened.

The facility, which began operating in 2009 after a decade of construction at a cost of almost $4 billion, points 192 football-field-sized lasers at one tiny capsule the size of a peppercorn and filled with hydrogen. It creates degrees of heat and pressure never before achieved in a lab.

Standing outside NIF’s target chamber in 2008, about a year before NIF’s dedication, Director Ed Moses called NIF “more far-out, and far cooler than anything in science fiction or fantasy.”

A tiny star for a blip in time

“For a brief period of time, not a hundredth or a thousandth, but a billionth of a second,” explained Moses, “we will raise the temperature of the target to a hundred million degrees.

“That’s higher temperature and more pressure than exists at the center of our sun. It’s a hundred million times more pressure than you’ll find at the deepest part of the ocean.”

Under those conditions, the hydrogen atoms could enter into a state of controlled nuclear fusion. (In nuclear fission, as in nuclear power plants, energy is generated by splitting atoms. Fusion is the opposite: Atoms are smashed together.)

The goal is referred to as “ignition.” It would put out more energy than the lasers had put in to it.

192 powerful lasers create star-like conditions inside a peppercorn-sized "hohlarum." Credit: NIF

If scientists can make ignition happen at NIF, that achievement could, theoretically, be parlayed into a new kind of nuclear power plant. Unlike fission plants, which eat up uranium and generate radioactive waste, these fusion plants would run on water, and create virtually no waste at all.

Waiting to ignite

At NIF's dedication in 2009, George Miller, then-head of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, seemed to believe that ignition was right around the corner.

“I think we will get ignition,” Miller told the crowd. “I think we'll get ignition relatively shortly after we turn the facility on.”

Since then, the strength and functionality of the lasers have received praise from the physics community.

“The laser has been working phenomenally,” said Christopher Deeney, who directs the Division of Defense Science at the National Nuclear Security Administration, which oversees NIF. “It's the most controllable, precise laser the community has ever built.”

But ignition – the goal at the center of NIF’s name — hasn’t happened. “We just haven't gotten it to burn yet,” explained Moses at a recent interview.

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Inside NIF, a football-field sized array of lasers. Credit: NIF

In a July 19, 2012 report, the NNSA concluded that “the probability of ignition before the end of December is extremely low.” The report called the functionality of the lasers “outstanding,” but blamed NIF’s computer simulations for the failure to ignite.

An NNSA ignition deadline of October 1, 2012, has now come and gone.

Moses bridles at the idea that anyone can put a deadline on this achievement.

“We never guaranteed anything on any particular date,” he says. “People have to sort of get used to that. That’s what great science is.”

Nevertheless, by law, on November 30th, Department of Energy Secretary Steven Chu is required to report to Congress on why NIF hasn't met its goal, despite significant cost to taxpayers: about 300 million dollars a year on top of over three billion in construction costs.

For Christopher Paine, a longtime NIF critic with the Natural Resources Defense council, this amounts to an “I told you so” moment.

“This project has gone on a long time,” he says, “billions of dollars invested. But to what end?"

What is NIF for?

Paine's criticism of NIF boils down to two objections: the project's expense and what you might call a muddled sense of purpose. What, in other words, is NIF for?

There are three answers to that question, explains a 2009 NIF promotional video.

“NIF will explore controlled nuclear fusion to ensure global security, enable sustainable clean energy, and advance our understanding of the universe.”

Let’s break that down.

Reason number one: Global security. This is the primary intent of NIF, and it has to do with the fact that actual nuclear bomb tests have been banned worldwide.

Because NIF simulates a nuclear reaction in a tiny pellet, you could test the strength of nuclear bombs without having to actually explode them.

Paine believes that’s unnecessary. "We haven’t had NIF for the last 20 years," he says, "and we've been maintaining the stockpile."

NNSA"s Deeney disagrees, calling NIF a “key element in our stockpile stewardship program.” He says important experiments can be done at NIF even without ignition. “We're committed to NIF for the long term,” he says.

Reason number two: Clean, fusion energy. This is a very long-term goal. Even if NIF does achieve ignition, it could take decades to adapt that technology into a working fusion power plant, something that could power a light bulb in your house.

A 100-year solution to a 20-year emergency

Paine says with climate change, we don't have that kind of time.

“Dealing with climate change is a 20-30 year planetary emergency,” says Paine. “Fusion energy is irrelevant to that timescale. Humanity needs to change its ways now. It needed to change its ways yesterday. Fusion energy is a 50 to 100-year project with no assurance of success.”

At NIF, the goal is to create nuclear fusion — a tiny star — inside this peppercorn sized "hohlraum." Credit: NIF

But it's the third reason, to “advance our understanding of the universe,” that Moses emphasizes these days.

“The Higgs Boson was just discovered at the [Large Hadron Collider] in CERN, at a cost of ten billion dollars,” he points out. “Was it late? Was it early? Was it on time?”

The answer, he says: Who cares? Moses calls these types of projects “grand challenge science,” and insists they cannot be performed on deadline.

“It’s not grand challenge science if you know the answer before you start,” says Moses. “And this is exactly that.”

NNSA's Christopher Deeney also declines to predict when NIF will achieve its goal.

“Right now we will not make a prediction of when ignition will happen,” he says. “It's still a discovery science project. Right now it's unpredictable.”

That's the case NIF's advocates will have to make to Congress at the end of this year. It’s worked so far. After all, NIF has something for both sides of the aisle: Democrats like clean energy, Republicans like weapons security.

But everyone likes a breakthrough, and at NIF, that's still out of reach.

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About the Author ()

As a radio reporter for KQED Science, Amy's grappled with archaic maps, brain fitness exercises, albino redwood trees, and jet-lagged lab rats, as well as modeled a wide variety of hard hats and construction vests. Long before all that, she learned to cut actual tape interning for a Latin American news show at WBAI in New York, then took her first radio job as a producer for Pulse of the Planet. Since then, Amy has been an editor at Salon.com, the editor of Terrain Magazine, and has produced stories for NPR, Living on Earth, Philosophy Talk, and Pop Up Magazine. She's also a founding editor of Meatpaper Magazine.
  • http://www.facebook.com/charles.irwin.585 Charles Irwin

    This is money well spent, unlike most of the federal "budget". I have to put the word in quotes because they haven't even had a budget for the last three years. How pathetic is it to criticize something like this when we are hemmoraging a trillion dollars year for no reason whatsoever?

    The idea that we shouldn't bother because we'll all be dead from "climate change" in 30 years is even more ridicuolous.

    From what I read it sounds like the lasers are working well, but there is a computer simulation problem. That sounds to me like something that can be fixed.

  • sjo

    This is the greatest task the human race right now.

  • Jaq

    +1 on money well spent. It'd be cheap at twice the price. Developing fusion energy is the single-most important energy-related, scientific goal at present. Tidal energy, wind, geo-thermal, solar; all of these have potential, but none are as attractive and potentially powerful as fusion. All of them also require huge infrastructure commitments in the forms of complex tidal barriers, vast swathes of land covered with solar/wind generators, or massive mining/drilling projects and exchange plants to pull heat energy (usually in the form of caustic/corrosive gases and liquids) from below the earth's surface. Fusion tech is no small thing; fusion plants would be sizeable and expensive. But they'd be relatively self-contained and generate far more – and cleaner – power per footprint than any of the others. And they can be placed anywhere; no need for sunny climes, geologically active areas, or beautiful coastlines & tidal flats. They can take up the ugliest, most barren real estate on earth, and bring skilled jobs – and resulting wealth – to those areas at the same time.

    And that goes for off-world applications as well. If we're ever going to establish mankind permanently on the moon, or Mars, what better way than to do so by powering those outposts with Helium 3, the gold standard of fusionable material that is incredibly rare on Earth, but hugely abundant on the moon?

    As with putting a man on the moon, the pursuit of sustainable fusion – literally a quest for fire – should, in the words of JFK, "serve to organize and measure the best of our
    energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing
    to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to
    win, and the others, too."

  • Robert Steinhaus

    It is not wise
    to discount the ultimate potential of fusion

    (which is indeed very great).

    Current leadership at LLNL is excessively aggressive in pushing the promise of

    NIF and LIFE while being insufficiently careful to state precisely, in worlds

    that convey accurate meaning, the current status and level of achievement of

    NIF researchers in producing a practical form of fusion that ultimately

    produces more energy as output then it takes to run the NIF experiment and

    power its lasers from the power lines. NIF program has repeatedly made claims
    to the press dramatically announcing we are approaching "break-even" and "energy gain". The facts are that NIF is in fact still 2 orders of magnitude away from generating the amount of fusion energy that would equal the energy that must be drawn from the power grid to run the Laser fusion experiment.

    A question I would invite Amy Standen (author of this article) to ask NIF managers
    prior to writing a future article on NIF –

    Is it not true that NIF in its current form, even under the most favorable
    circumstances, will never produce as much energy from fusion as the electrical energy this
    experiment must draw from the power grid to operate the experiment?

    The NIF Laser is only about 1% efficient (or less) at converting electrical
    line power into frequency tripled laser light power used to heat the fusion
    plasma. The yield from fusion per shot would have to be 100 times higher than it is currently to
    produce energy break-even the way lay persons in the public would understand
    break-even from their common experience. It would be the reasonable expectation
    of the public that if the scientists at NIF said their experiment achieved
    break-even, then you would actually get more energy from fusion than it takes in
    electricity drawn from the power lines to run the experiment and power its
    lasers. NIF fusion scientists currently define "break-even" in a way that is 100 times easier to achieve than what the public understands when they hear the words "break-even", so there is (deliberate?) miscommunication in every press release produced by LLNL descibing ignition, "break-even", and the current status of the NIF experiment.

    An Inconvenient Truth to be verified by careful questioning of NIF fusion
    scientists –

    Even if “ignition” is achieved (More Power out of NIF than the power

    delivered to the fusion plasma by laser light), NIF still produces only a tiny
    small amount of energy each NIF shot. If, at some point, NIF achieves the long
    sought goal of ignition and break-even, it will still only produce a tiny 1.8 Mega-joules of energy in a period of about 23-nanoseconds each shot.

    While most laypersons and reporters may not be that familiar with the energy

    unit (Mega-joules) this 1.8 Mega-joules of energy is as much

    energy as would be produced by efficiently burning 0.014 gallons of diesel
    fuel.

    The most rapid cycle time that currently can be achieved at NIF is about 8

    hours between shots, so with a maximum effort and three shifts a day of work,

    NIF could produce three shots a day with a combined energy output of 54 Mjoules. This
    amount of energy is equivalent to efficient burning 0.042 gallons of diesel
    fuel a day.

    Without significant scaling and redesign, NIF in its current configuration cannot
    provide the energy that America needs, at commercial Gigawatt levels, to
    achieve real American energy security.

  • BIRDFISH

    ONCE AGAIN SINFUL WASTEFUL SO CALLED SCIENTISTS WHO THUMB THEIR NOSES AT JESUS CHRIST OUR LORD AND SAVIOR ARE SHOWN THAT THEIR UNDERSTANDING OF THE UNIVERSE IS INCORRECT AND WRONG. THE FACT OF THE MATTER IS THAT THEY SHOULD LOOK TO THE BIBLE TO UNDERSTAND EVERYTHING AND IF THEY WOULD EMBRACE THE WORDS OF THE BIBLE AND GIVE UP THEIR FALSE RELIGION THAT THEY CALL SCIENCE WHICH IS FULL OF NONSENSE ABOUT EVOLUTION AND GLOBAL WARMING AND OTHER FOOLISHNESSES SUCH AS FUSION THEN THEY WOULD UNDERSTAND THE TRUTH THAT ONLY THROUGH PRAYER WILL THE PROBLEMS OF THE WORLD AND YES EVEN THE UNIVERSE BE SOLVED IN FULLNESS.

    • James

      I pray you get the help you need. Science is a gift from God if you believe in God. Fusion is how God powers the galaxies. Why wouldn't we try to learn about this wonderful process. Further how can you speak such mean things about people working on this project. You so called Christians need to actually do what he said.

  • Robert Steinhaus

    A suggestion on how to get NIF to work – (if ignition does not occur at NIF in ultra-violet laser light, switch to green)

    The Lawrence Livermore National Lab NIF experiment has recently failed to
    achieve ignition at the end of a 3 year National Ignition Campaign [1].

    It is important for the future of fusion in the United States for NIF to
    ultimately work. A dramatic failure at NIF would be very damaging to both the
    Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and to the hopes and prospects for
    fusion in America in our lifetimes.

    A valuable feature of NIF is the final optical system that converts the
    fundamental 1,053-nanometer (1-omega, or 1ω) infrared light to higher harmonic
    frequencies and focuses it onto the target. This NIF optical system is designed
    to be flexible to support a variety of missions.

    Suggestion: In 2008, LLNL investigated a 2ω configuration of the NIF laser
    [2].

    If the 1.8 MJ 3ω X-ray configuration of the NIF laser is currently not able to
    produce ignition of tiny 1.8 MJ hohlraums, why not try a 2ω configuration where
    the laser is capable of delivering more power in the green spectrum (526.5 nm)
    and potentially capable of igniting a significantly larger hohlraum producing
    100 – 200 MJ per shot?

    In 2008 NIF researchers reported in Applied Optics [2] on the performance of
    a single NIF beamline operated at its second-harmonic wavelength of 526.5 nm
    (2ω). In 2008 record single-beamline pulsed energies were produced up to 17.7
    kilojoules (kJ) (equivalent to 3.4 megajoules (MJ) for the full 192-beam NIF).
    Shaped pulses with focal spot smoothing were produced at energies that are
    consistent with high-energy-density experimental designs, including high-gain,
    high-yield 2ω ignition.

    The potential for operation at very high 2ω energies, in excess of 3MJ,
    might justify reevaluation and review. The increased fluence limits for optical
    damage at 2ω make it possible to consider routine 2ω operation of the laser at
    these energies while maintaining or reducing operating costs.

    In the conventional NIF laser 3ω configuration. 1.8 Mega-joules of energy is
    expected to be produced from the NIF hohlraum, this is a tiny amount of energy
    equivalent to the energy produced by efficiently burning 0.014 gallons of
    diesel fuel.

    Using the 2ω green light configuration of NIF allows significantly more
    power to be safely generated by the laser, to the point that ignition of 200 MJ
    hohlraums should be possible. 200 MJ of fusion energy is equivalent to 1.45
    gallons of diesel fuel. This is over 100 times the energy produced by the small
    1.8 MJ 3ω hohlraum.

    The cited Applied Optics report [1], indicates
    that 2ω operations of shots of up to 3.4 MJ full NIF equivalent can be produced
    that result in no optical damage. 2ω operation of the NIF Laser would permit
    higher operating power than the 3ω conventional configuration and permit
    larger, lower-temperature, but higher yield hohlraums to be used. Because of
    the higher energies available (of up to 3.4 MJ) at 2ω, these larger targets are
    reported to have calculated fusion yields as high as 100 to 200 MJ and this
    would be a much nicer and more practical yield to use to scale from for actual
    fusion power plants of the future.

    [1] – NIF responds to fusion ‘deadline’ expiry – http://optics.org/indepth/3/10/2

    [2] – Demonstration of high-energy 2ω (526.5 nm) operation on the National
    Ignition Facility Laser System – http://www.opticsinfobase.org/ao/abstract.cfm?uri=ao-47-19-3494

  • James

    If we spent less time blowing each other up and more time figuring out things like this we'd fulfill our potential as a species.

  • fusioneer

    Dear Mr. Steinhaus,

    Unfortunately, the foundational ideas about how nuclear fusion actually works or occurs has been wrong for more than 60 years. What is interesting is that the model of how fusion works is promoted in every textbook on physics all over the world and hardly anyone has ever questioned the foundational concepts even though there isn't a single shred of direct experimental data that confirms that model. At the heart of this issue is the foundational beliefs about the interaction of elementary charged particles and the reality is that people believe that like charged particles repel one another and the oppositely charged particles are attractively interactive. This is true and the forces between particles are expressed by Coulomb's Law; yet it is only true when elementary charge particles are not overlapping in the same momentum space (it is true only when charged particles have a significant amount of relative motion, so much that they are not in the same momentum space). Almost all of our experimental data is extracted from situations where the interacting particles have lots of relative motion. When elementary charged particles are at rest with respect to each other then their interactive behavior can be predicted to be just opposite to the expectations of Coulomb's Law. Most people, most physicists are completely unaware of this yet we have a lot of experimental data where same charged particles are snuggly bound to each other. This occurs in superconduction where tightly bound pairs of spin up / spin down electrons actually are responsible for the superconduction phenomenon itself. We have 60 year old data that shows that nuclear fusion occurs between nuclei that where none of the interacting nuclei had sufficient energy to surmount the so-called 'Coulomb Barrier'. We are not successful in building a nuclear fusion reactor because fusion doesn't work the way that all of our textbooks say that it does. There's no amount of money that can make it work opposite to the actual foundational principles (even if unknown to mankind). Not $5 billion nor even $5 trillion can get it to work if it doesn't actually work the way that they believe that it works.

  • Charles Irwin

    An Ohio State research group says "the typical approach to cone-guided Fast Ignition" won’t work. Here's the link:

    https://www.osc.edu/press/simulations_uncover_obstacle_to_harnessing_laser_driven_fusion

    Meanwhile the Livermore, PLS page says basically the opposite:

    "The fast ignition approach holds the promise of reduced laser driver
    energy and increased fusion energy gains, exceeding gains of 100, and
    thus offers a potentially attractive pathway toward an eventual inertial
    fusion energy plant.". Here's the link:

    https://www-pls.llnl.gov/?url=about_pls-physics_division-fesp-hedlp_fast_ignition

    WHO'S RIGHT?