LIVERMORE, Calif. — The first experiments at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory’s National Ignition Facility (NIF) have demonstrated a unique physics effect that bodes well for NIF’s success in generating a self-sustaining nuclear fusion reaction.
In inertial confinement fusion (ICF) experiments on NIF, the energy of 192 powerful laser beams is fired into a pencil-eraser-sized cylinder called a hohlraum, which contains a tiny spherical target filled with deuterium and tritium, two isotopes of hydrogen. Rocket-like compression of the fuel capsule forces the hydrogen nuclei to combine, or fuse, releasing many times more energy than the laser energy that was required to spark the reaction. […]
The experiments, described in an article in today’s edition of Science Express, the online version of the journal Science, resulted in highly symmetrical compression of simulated fuel capsules – a requirement for NIF to achieve its goal of fusion ignition and energy gain when ignition experiments begin later this year.
This has been an unusually controversial project – I can’t think of another project where the lead scientist is called a “snake oil salesman” in public. And I’m still waiting for a press release that reads “we just realized this is never going to work, but we’re funded through the year, so suck it.” And, even if it does work, we would still be a long way from commercial application. But fusion is the only technology I can think of that could solve so many of our environmental and energy problems in an unambiguous way. Hydrogen is not a limited resource, and helium is about as harmless as a substance as exists, if you don’t mind talking like a chipmunk.