This Nuclear Fusion Reactor Is Damn Close to Burning Plasma



This nuclear fusion reactor is damn close to achieving "burning plasma." It will be a monumental milestone on the road to igniting a fusion reaction.


© Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory –
This nuclear fusion reactor is damn close to achieving “burning plasma.” It will be a monumental milestone on the road to igniting a fusion reaction.

  • The National Ignition Facility bombards fuel with lasers to reach productive fusion.
  • The fuel pellet is held inside a golden crucible that scientists are constantly redesigning.
  • Scientists are doing whatever they can to boost output without increasing power input.

A major nuclear fusion reactor powered by lasers has set up a new series of milestones. The National Ignition Facility (NIF), at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) in California, says that after a decade of challenges, it’s finally homing in on the right range to reach productive nuclear fusion.

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This puts the facility in a slow-motion dead heat with half a dozen major fusion projects around the world that are all, they say, finally striding toward the goal of fusion ignition.

Science’s Daniel Clery reports:

“A decade and nearly 3000 shots later, NIF is still generating more fizz than bang, hampered by the complex, poorly understood behavior of the laser targets when they vaporize and implode. But with new target designs and laser pulse shapes, along with better tools to monitor the miniature explosions, NIF researchers believe they are close to an important intermediate milestone known as ‘burning plasma’: a fusion burn sustained by the heat of the reaction itself rather than the input of laser energy.”

Fusion has something of a reputation within the energy industry. The technology is far out in spirit and in mechanics, requiring an astonishing amount of energy input with the goal to turn out more than it takes in. But to even design and run experiments on these reactors is a huge cost—one that critics say isn’t any more worthwhile today than it has been for decades.

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Fusion advocates say they’re closer than ever to their extraordinary goals. And at LLNL, their approach continues to move along its own trajectory.

In the NIF, nearly 200 lasers bombard a tiny morsel of nuclear fuel—and the beams don’t even touch the fuel.

“The beams heat a gold can the size of a pencil eraser called a hohlraum, which emits a pulse of x-rays meant to ignite fusion by heating the fuel capsule at its center to tens of millions of degrees and compressing it to billions of atmospheres,” Science reports. The hohlraum is like an amped-up, centimeter-small crucible where all the action must happen.

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Using a series of laser pulses means the harmonics of those pulses must be considered. In this case, LLNL has begun to leverage

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Record neutron numbers at Sandia Labs’ Z machine fusion experiments

nuclear fusion
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A relatively new method to control nuclear fusion that combines a massive jolt of electricity with strong magnetic fields and a powerful laser beam has achieved its own record output of neutrons—a key standard by which fusion efforts are judged—at Sandia National Laboratories’ Z pulsed power facility, the most powerful producer of X-rays on Earth.


The achievement, from a project called MagLIF, for magnetized liner inertial fusion, was reported in a paper published Oct. 9 in the journal Physical Review Letters.

“The output in neutrons in the past two years increased by more than an order of magnitude,” said Sandia physicist and lead investigator Matt Gomez. “We’re not only pleased that the improvements we implemented led to this increase in output, but that the increase was accurately predicted by theory.”

MagLIF neutron production increased to 10 to the 13th using deuterium fuel (10 to the 15th would represent the hundred-fold output increase generally accepted by scientists, if an equal mixture of deuterium and tritium, DT, had been used) and the average ion temperature doubled. This was achieved through a simultaneous 50 percent increase in the applied magnetic field, a tripling of laser energy and an increase in Z’s power input from 16 to 20 mega-amps, Gomez said.

“The output was only 2 kilojoules DT, a relatively small amount of energy,” he said. A kilojoule is defined as the heat energy dissipated by a current of 1,000 amperes passing through a 1-ohm resistor for one second. “But based on the experiments that we have done so far, which show a factor of 30 improvement in five years and simulations consistent with those experiments, we think that a 30 to 50 kilojoule yield is possible, bringing us near the state known as scientific break-even.”

The rise in output, predicted from changes in input, indicates that a proposal to build a machine even larger than Z and better equipped to exceed break-even, now has a stronger basis from which to make that request, said Gomez.

“Results at MagLIF have stirred a tremendous interest in fusion research that —by combining magnetism, lasers and electrical energy—spans the plasma states between traditional inertial confinement fusion, like the lasers at Lawrence Livermore National Lab’s National Ignition Facility, and traditional magnetic confinement fusion like the international ITER project in southern France,” said Dan Sinars, director of Sandia’s Pulsed Power Sciences Center. “MagLIF’s success has led to new programs and several fusion start-ups, and has helped build interest in this broader approach.”

Because performance and plasma conditions varied predictably with changes in input parameters, Sandia fusion experiments manager David Ampleford said, “We have additional confidence we can scale MagLIF to higher currents.”

Break-even is the intermediate goal

Break-even occurs when the amount of energy invested in the fuel is equal to the amount of energy it emits, a milepost achievement to those in the field. When more energy is emitted than is needed to maintain the experiment—a condition known as “high yield”—the world’s dream

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Fusion and Interstellar Space Travel: Direct Fusion Drive Facts

futuristic holographic nuclear fusion particles simulation

Kittiphat AbhiratvorakulGetty Images

  • Using a conceptual direct fusion drive, we could reach Saturn and Titan in just two years.
  • Titan’s liquid surface oceans and rich hydrocarbons make it an interesting target in deep space.
  • The fusion drive uses microwaved plasma to propel the ship and power its other systems.

    Experts say the right kind of propulsion system could carry spacecraft to Saturn in just two years. The direct fusion drive (DFD), a concept being developed by Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory, would make extremely fast work of the nearly billion miles between Earth and Saturn.

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    Researchers there say the Princeton field reversed configuration-2 (PFRC-2) drive could be the secret to feasible travel within our solar system.

    The research team chose Saturn’s moon Titan as an ideal, well, moonshot. The #1 moon in our solar system has a great deal of scientific interest because of its surface liquids, and the fact that they’re hydrocarbons means Titan could even become a refueling waystation in some far future space highway system.

    Universe Today reports:

    “[T]he engine itself exploits many of the advantages of aneutronic fusion, most notably an extremely high power-to-weight ratio,” a press release reads. “The fuel for a DFD drive can vary slightly in mass and contains deuterium and a helium-3 isotope. Essentially, the DFD takes the excellent specific impulse of electric propulsion systems and combines it with the excellent thrust of chemical rockets, for a combination that melds the best of both flight systems.”

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    In a way, this is a lot like how hybrid consumer vehicles are designed. There are times when electric provides the best, most efficient push, and there are times when fossil fuels are still the most logical choice. The PPPL direct fusion drive is being studied in two modes: one where it thrusts the entire time, and another where, like a Prius, it thrusts to get up to speed at the beginning only. The trip to Titan changes from about 2 years to about 2.5 depending on the mode.


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    The reactor itself is relatively small, because even a larger spacecraft for our current imagination is far smaller than family

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