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 them for better outcomes, not merely hedge to avoid interference or other problems. “Later pulses ramped up more aggressively so that the plastic capsule had less time to mix with the fuel during compression, a tactic that boosted yields somewhat,” Nature explains.

The boost still isn’t enough, but it’s meaningful, LLNL says.



Mockup of the gold-plated hohlraum designed for the NIF.


© Laurence Livermore National Laboratory
Mockup of the gold-plated hohlraum designed for the NIF.

NIF researchers don’t want to turn up the amount of energy the lasers require—this is considered the last ditch way to increase the power of their fusion reactor, because then it’s still even harder to get a “runaway” energy production mode that will sustain itself. In the meantime, they’re changing the shape of the crucible, for example, and tweaking other parts of the experimental design.

The next few years will say a lot about whether this extraordinary design will be successful.

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