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Power The Almighty Buck United States Science

Is It Time For the US Government To Back Fusion At NIF Over ITER? 308

ananyo writes "Laser beams at the National Ignition Facility have fired a record 1.875 megajoule shot into its target chamber, surpassing their design specification. The achievement is a milepost on the way to ignition — the 'break-even' point at which the facility will finally be able to release more energy than goes into the laser shot by imploding a target pellet of hydrogen isotopes. NIF's managers think the end of their two-year campaign for break-even energy is in sight and say they should achieve ignition before the end of 2012. However, with scientists at NIF saying that a $4 billion pilot plant could be putting hundreds of megawatts into the grid by the early 2020s, some question whether the Department of Energy is backing the wrong horse with ITER — a $21-billion international fusion experiment under construction at St-Paul-lez-Durance, France. Is it time for the DoE to switch priorities and back NIF's proposals?" Perhaps a better idea, given the potential benefits of fusion research, would be for the DoE to throw their weight behind multiple projects, rather than sacrificing some to support others.
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Is It Time For the US Government To Back Fusion At NIF Over ITER?

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  • by gestalt_n_pepper ( 991155 ) on Tuesday March 20, 2012 @03:24PM (#39417351)

    Seems like thorium reactors, which we've already built, and gotten working, are a much more tractable problem.

    • by Rei ( 128717 ) on Tuesday March 20, 2012 @03:41PM (#39417657) Homepage

      Thorium is just a trendy topic. Geeks are always so easily sold on the storyline, "There's this great new technology, and here's a list of five or so of its advantages -- it's the solution to all of the world's problems!". Which totally skims over, obviously, the disadvantages and challenges.

      • by gestalt_n_pepper ( 991155 ) on Tuesday March 20, 2012 @03:52PM (#39417877)

        Thanks, but I'm aware of the "new technology will solve the energy crisis" meme. The deal is this. We do need a new source of electricity as hydrocarbon depletion, or more importantly, hydrocarbon's ever shrinking energy return, starts to bite in a big way. We don't have many affordable options that scale. Nuclear has a chance of that, but conventional plants are dangerous and uranium isn't an infinite resource either. We have much more thorium than uranium, and while the plants are technologically challenging, we've already built them. It's not a matter of "trying to break even." We've broken even. It's a matter of building enough of the things safely and economically. That take incremental development, not some major breakthrough. It seems to me that pursing thorium is an easier and more economic solution than continuing to futz with fusion.

        • by Chris Burke ( 6130 ) on Tuesday March 20, 2012 @04:42PM (#39418653) Homepage

          It seems to me that pursing thorium is an easier and more economic solution than continuing to futz with fusion.

          Why treat these things like we have to only pick one? It's not like the money for R&D into fusion reactors and money for the construction of production fission reactors are coming from the same place. Even if they were, I'm sure we could find some third thing to de-prioritize instead.

          Thorium fission reactors have great potential for solving many current problems with fossil fuels. Thorium reactors could be running and solving our problem long before fusion reactors could.

          Fusion reactors have the potential to solve our energy problems for any forseeable future -- making energy so plentiful and cheap that we could use it to do things that would be completely insane now. Even in a future where we are using nuclear fission for all our power, the creation of working, production fusion reactors would be a revolutionary change.

          We want both. Let's not pit them against each other.

        • by AmiMoJo ( 196126 )

          We can't just build more, there are major technical problems that still need to be overcome. Thorium fuel needs remote handling, for example, because of high levels of radioactivity. The reactor itself becomes highly radioactive during its lifetime too and is thus a major problem to decommission. Keep in mind that in the UK and most of Europe entombing the reactor is not an acceptable option, the site must be properly cleaned up.

          On top of all that there are no commercially viable large scale reactors and de

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by Kreigaffe ( 765218 )

        Thorium, yes, but the wider view is reactor design. Doesn't have to be Thorium, we also have all this lovely nuclear waste from old reactors lying around.. and a good bit of it is still perfectly fissile, given the right sorta conditions. That's producing energy from trash, for the 21st century.

        Then again, scary nuclear, NIMBY SAYS NOPE!

      • by Artraze ( 600366 )

        Well, duh, but you know what? At least it works.

        Greens, politicians and indeed nerds to all go on about fusion too. Nevermind that it doesn't break even thermally, let alone once you factor in electrical conversion and fuel production. Nevermind that even if it did, the current projects are totally nonviable commercially. And all that aside, proposed processes _still_ produce neutrons and leave their facilities radioactive just like fission plants.

        If you're calling interest in thorium fission trendy and

        • Fusion has been breaking even thermally for quite some time now.

          What it doesn't do is run continuously, which makes practical extraction difficult. But the fact that we've made steady progress towards this goal, and found no physical laws preventing it (instead we have learned a great deal about plasma physics and how it relates to efficient fusion confinement) means we should continue researching it.

  • by earls ( 1367951 ) on Tuesday March 20, 2012 @03:25PM (#39417379)

    I'm vaguely familiar with the NIF and their "how it works" section breaks down in great detail everything involved in generating the beam, amplifying the beam, targeting the beam, and imploding the target, but how do they capture the energy produced by the target?

    • by Rei ( 128717 ) on Tuesday March 20, 2012 @03:34PM (#39417525) Homepage

      They don't.

      Next question?

      • by vlm ( 69642 )

        Well technically it heats up the walls and any shielding. Unlike a torus / iter type thing, you don't wrap the reactor with liquid helium cooled superconducting magnets so thats not too big of a deal. To a crude first approximation you can heat a NIF device up until the vapor pressure starts screwing up the reaction and optics (I donno, dull red glow?)

        • by opinionbot ( 1940160 ) on Tuesday March 20, 2012 @06:00PM (#39419869)
          Actually the front-end optics in NIF are usually replaced after each shot using modular Final Optics Assemblies [], because debris from the exploding pellet and hohlraum is deposited onto surfaces. In a fusion reactor the optics would also need to withstand the flux of 14 MeV neutrons, without degrading excessively. Besides this there are several major hurdles to overcome in turning NIF's (impressive) performance into a source of power:
          1. The definition of "ignition" here means laser energy onto target vs. fusion power out. Current laser technology is not efficient enough at the high powers needed for ICF. It's still meaningful because in laser fusion the target physics is largely separated from the lasers so once the principles work an improved laser can be developed.
          2. The glass lasers used in NIF need to cool down for several hours between firings, whereas in a power plant the lasers need to fire at 10-15 Hz. High-power solid state lasers need development.
          3. The indirect drive scheme used in NIF is too inefficient to be used in a power plant. NIF uses a hohlraum [] to create a uniform implosion, but the conversion of laser energy to x-rays on the target is only a few percent.

          I've been around NIF and it is an amazing machine. It's also designed (and funded) to study warm dense matter physics like equations of state at high density for nukes, not fusion. Use of NIF for fusion is a great side-benefit and hopefully they can get useful data from it.

          The HiPER project to design a fusion reactor based on fast ignition has been though an initial concept design phase, but is now waiting further development. There is still a lot of research which needs to be done in target physics, lasers, and materials before ICF is ready to build an ITER-like machine

          The physics behind the ITER tokamak [] on the other hand is quite well understood at this point. Sure there are outstanding issues which are still being worked on (ELMS, divertor detachment, RWM control spring to mind) but we're pretty confident it will work. The design of ITER started in 88, and before that the INTOR project in '78, but it has taken a long time for politicians actually put some serious resources behind it. Hopefully it won't take that long for ICF projects like HiPER to be taken seriously and funded at a level which will make them happen

    • Mod parent up.

  • by eternaldoctorwho ( 2563923 ) on Tuesday March 20, 2012 @03:27PM (#39417415)

    [NIF's managers] say they should achieve ignition before the end of 2012.

    I'm guessing their target date is December 21.

    ...Well played, Mayans, well played.

    • by jd ( 1658 )

      It's not their target, per se. It's earlier than that, but after you take into account vacation time, funding delays and an unexpected blackout due to solar flares, Dec 21 will be when ignition is actually reached.

  • Cheaper than War (Score:5, Insightful)

    by cryfreedomlove ( 929828 ) on Tuesday March 20, 2012 @03:27PM (#39417419)
    Is $4B really that hard to come up with for this project? That sounds a lot cheaper than the constant state of war we find ourselves in today in the Middle East to keep the oil supply flowing.
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Moses48 ( 1849872 )

      People like to equate our oil needs with our electric needs. Maybe I'm misinformed, but they don't seem to equate. If we found a completely free source of electricity, that used a large building to produce, we wouldn't get rid of our oil demand. We would get rid of our coal demand. Electric transportation still suffers from battery issues at the moment. At some point in the future cheap electricity might reduce our oil demand, but with urban sprawl and the current shortcomings of electric transport, I

      • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

        by Anonymous Coward

        assuming an unlimited 'free' electricity supply, synthesis of oil from base chemicals starts to look doable. its just energy after all - all it needs is converting into chemical form.

      • Battery issues are coming to an end, soon enough the range anxiety crowd will be recommended a therapist instead of a bigger battery. Average-Joe-priced electric cars are already going 100 miles on a charge and doing an 80% quick charge in half an hour. That's over 3x the average American's daily driving distance. The vast majority of cars could be replaced with electrics right now.

        The only thing we really need petrofuels for is non-tiny aircraft, and in the short term, non-huge boats.

      • Re:Cheaper than War (Score:5, Interesting)

        by vlm ( 69642 ) on Tuesday March 20, 2012 @04:02PM (#39418049)

        If we found a completely free source of electricity, that used a large building to produce, we wouldn't get rid of our oil demand.

        Not really. Given enough cheap energy, synthetic fuel is pretty trivial.

        The energy cost of ethanol distillation makes it a borderline negative source of energy... but if that energy is infinite and free, well then... Think about it... aluminum is essentially congealed electricity (look how its made). So you make aluminum greenhouses out of free electricity and dirt, then you string 24x7 ultra-high intensity lights using free electricity, the plants grow in water that was desalinated ocean water using free electricity, then you ferment the "stuff" and distill using free electricity... Given an infinite source of free electricity, pretty much, sea water comes in one pipe, and motor fuel ethanol comes out another pipe.

        You could condense carbon dioxide out of the air and strip the carbon off, condense water out of the air to strip the hydrogen off, mix together in a somewhat complicated o-chem lab, and make synth-gas. Air goes in one pipe, gasoline comes out the other pipe.

        Takes a heck of a lot of energy to pull that trick off, but it can be done.

    • $4b is chump change, considering that the energy market is a multi-trillian dollar sector. Hell, the €25b that the anti-ITER folks are whining about so pathetically, is chump change -- it's ambitious, yes -- but worth every penny.

    • by jd ( 1658 )

      $4 bln is nothing. The US could fully fund this AND fully fund ITER (as opposed to the dribble they're giving) AND fully fund that joint US-EU project to Mars that's at risk, just by taking the money out of senseless earmarks or by pulling just one thousand extra troops home a few months early.

      There's probably more than $4 bln wasted by officials leaving lights on or taps dripping.

      You have, however, not just to consider the immediate costs and benefits. There's the long-term as well. Mining uranium and/or c

    • Scary isn't it?

      Yet no one in Washington truly wants to stop this train wreck. Maybe we can get lucky, get fusion to work, and sell it to pay off our debts.

  • One purpose of the facility (alongside inertial confinement fusion) is

    to support nuclear weapon maintenance and design by studying the behavior of matter under the conditions found within nuclear weapons []

  • by newcastlejon ( 1483695 ) on Tuesday March 20, 2012 @03:28PM (#39417435)

    Or at least let the DoE get involved instead of driving them to the DoD with inter-departmental pissing contests.

    For the money that the Polywell people are asking, and what a full-size model would cost compared to the "superconducting cathedrals"* of ITER, they'd be fools to not at least give them a try.

    *The late Dr. Bussard sure did know how to turn a phrase. There's no doubt about that, which is more than can be said about the actual Polywell concept itself - at least so far.

    • I'd have polywell funded, even if just to shut up the myriad internet cranks constantly banging on about it.

      No offence folks -- but citations from reputable peer-reviewed literature or STFU.

  • The LFTR (Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor) is a much more promising technology. For starters it's already been done, decades ago at Oak Ridge. It only needs to be commercialized. Also it lacks the hard gamma problems inherent in fusion.

    See []

    • Hard-gamma? I thought that the issue with most of the likely fusion reactions was enormous amounts of fast neutrons and activation of materials by said neutrons, not hard gamma rays.

    • by jd ( 1658 )

      Thorium isn't good. Much lower energies than conventional fission reactors, the mining isn't cheap or safe and produces just as much pollution and industrial accidents, ignition still requires uranium and there's still waste products - maybe not as radioactive, but still deadly for many decades.

      Thorium reactors would be good in space, because the primary fuel is basically inert and you need only a small amount of power to get them started. They could therefore be put into a hibernation state and activated a

      • Mining is not an issue. We're already throwing thorium away from current heavy metal mining and from coal tailings.

        Let me repeat that: we're currently throwing away fuel. No additional mining effort needs to be done to have all of the thorium we need.

        Second, nuclear is orders of magnitude more efficient than solar and wind. Solar and wind efficiencies are generally based on capacity, and NOT on actual output. The actual output from solar and wind installations are far lower than their capacity because t

    • It only needs to be commercialized.

      You say it so casually, as if it wouldn't take billions of euros and decades of time... It isn't just the reactor that needs to be designed, proven and certified, it's the infrastructure to handle the fuel and decommission the thing after its working life.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday March 20, 2012 @03:35PM (#39417555)

    Well, good luck with getting power into the grid by 2020.

    The reason why I'm saying this, is that it's an incredibly bold goal to turn the technology they've already got into a working prototype, incorporating everything learnt elsewhere, into a next-generation scientific experiment, let alone a power plant, by 2020. Hell, even HIPER won't break ground before 2020.

    Besides, the REAL fun stuff, is things like advanced materials for the combustion chamber, and a working blanket, which NOBODY has yet demonstrated, not JET, not ITER, not NIF -- nobody.

    Worse yet, we don't know what problems we'll run into once we achieve ignition in NIF, or the burning plasmas regime in ITER.

    To the genius who suggested that ITER is a political waste of time is obviously unfamiliar with the science. Even if ITER achieves its low-balled goals, it'll be a massive step towards a working plant. And they plan to actually test working power-generating, and tritium-breeding blankets as well, although that won't start until quite late in the project (the D-T phase of the project).

    The 'patriotic' Americans slagging ITER on /. should be quiet, as the US is, true to form, turning its back on the rest of the world, starving the US Domestic Agency of funding, and doing what it wants anyway.

    • by jd ( 1658 )

      The US could afford to pay for all of the major fusion ventures on Earth, if not in full then close to it, for the next 5-10 years without even being a measurable blip in the accounts. I don't think we'll have fusion by 2020, but if the US actually did put hard cash on the table to the tune of $10 billion extra per project, we might well be in line for large-scale conversion to fusion by 2025.

      The taxpayers just spent $100 billion a year every year for the last 11 years, on average. It took that long to get

  • What is break even? (Score:4, Informative)

    by Artraze ( 600366 ) on Tuesday March 20, 2012 @03:39PM (#39417625)

    It seems to be that the thermal energy produced is equal to the optical energy put in. Well, great, it's a milestone of sorts, but still massively far off actually producing energy. First and foremost, conversion of thermal to electrical is 33-40% efficient. Then you have to convert that to optical, an efficiency I do not know, but seems according to the Wiki page to be 1% (422MJ bank, 4MJ shot, could be old). Still, maybe it could be a lot better, but probably wouldn't exceed 80-90%. So, you actually have to beat this "break even" by a factor of at least 3 in order to actually output energy. But that doesn't account for fuel production, nor maintenance or construction of the facility.

    And, I should also point out that this story is just that their laser works, not that an sample was fired producing "break even" energy.

    Will it work? Maybe. But realistically, by the time we see commercial power from this, a fission plant built today would be reaching end-of-life.

    • by vlm ( 69642 )

      Your 99% loss in the shot turns into heat. Low grade process heat to be sure, but it doesn't just "disappear".

      • No but thermodynamics has some rather stern things to say about how much of that you're going to be able to recover as electricity again, not to mention the considerable issues associated with letting the laser system and optics themselves heat up into any sort of useful temperature for a heat engine.

  • The US government is currently funneling funds to NIF. Ananyo, the uber-parent poster, suggests the DoE backs multiple projects, instead of "sacrificing some to support others." It is unclear how the US government is supposed to pick the right technology worked on by the right people at the right time, or how unlimited funds will be available to fund various projects to prevent sacrifices when the CBO projects the entire US economy will "shut down" in 2027 based on current trends.
    • by jd ( 1658 )

      The US is bleeding $100 billion a year every year to fight various wars that were largely the fantasy of a mad Texan. Let's say that there's 10 fusion projects with a serious potential of actually breaking through and you fund each at $10 billion more than current - but just as a one-off. So for one additional year, the US bleeds another $100 billion but after that the bleeding stops.

      Without any further changes, the net result would be that the money saved would exceed the interest paid on the deficit. Not

  • The Numbers (Score:5, Insightful)

    by docilespelunker ( 1883198 ) on Tuesday March 20, 2012 @03:57PM (#39417953)
    Really now, they've fired ~2MJ pulse. But what does that mean? 2MJ of laser light was present in their test chamber. This was fueled by 400MJ of electrical energy stored in capacitors. So we can now see that they have accomplished making a 0.5% efficient laser. This is nothing to write home about. Lets consider the actual fusion power output. The most they've had is about 1kJ of fusion energy output. This is not a lot. The balance between energy in and energy out is very poor. Getting 1kJ from 400MJ is about the best they can hope for. An overall efficiency of 0.00025%. Who here thinks that's good? JET, which is the smaller brother of ITER has achieved a 90% energy balance. Still not breaking even, but still 3600 times closer. ITER is designed to output 10 times more energy than is input. So it'll spank NIF. QED. That doesn't stop it being expensive though...
    • Bear in mind too, that the scalings used to come up with the baseline performance predictions for ITER are quite conservative.

      I remember seeing something recently, that Steve Cowley said in a recent speech that JET is likely to exceed breakeven in the next D-T campaign. Not bad for a 30 year old machine.

  • Is it really economic to do this? If we have to build a new facility every time it goes past breakeven and explodes, it just seems like it is going to be expensive. Not to mention the politics of siting a bomb blowy-up thingy near cities where they need the power.

  • by sandytaru ( 1158959 ) on Tuesday March 20, 2012 @04:11PM (#39418207) Journal
    Even though their proof of concept system may not ultimately be the best way to fusion, they invented a HELL of a lot of technology in the process of getting there. Those laser pulses are amplified by sheets of giant crystals, so they had to invent a process to extrude them. And they always knew that their system was merely a demonstration of what could be done: they hope to license the technology to private energy companies who want an alternative to nuclear. Without the R&D component, the price tag of a NIF style fusion plant should drop from four billion down to 200-300 million, on par with the initial investment cost of a nuclear power plant. (I toured the facility a few years ago. Holy moly that place is cool and awesome. And the wine off Tesla Road is pretty good, too.)
  • The cost of EVERY single stealth bomber (plane and supporting program) comes in around 3 billion dollars. So considering this is about creating a virtually endless supply of energy capable of sustaining us for thousands of years, Why is this even a consideration. Move $100 billion from defense (I would argue this is the most important defense spending in our history) and get'er done, once and for all.

  • Well, like that's never happened before!

    Hint: The government usually backs the wrong horse. It's the nature of government.
  • by XiaoMing ( 1574363 ) on Tuesday March 20, 2012 @05:00PM (#39418947)

    I love how projected "breakeven" and "ignition" in 2012 has suddenly been extrapolated to MW powerplants on the grid within a decade.

    Nevermind that we don't capture the energy yet, which might give us best-case 50% efficiency. Nevermind we need 3x breakeven the breakeven energy for converting heat into steam to power a turbine. Nevermind just about every factor of 2-3 efficiency loss out there. I'm going to post one goddamn link that was true when I interned there, and is still consistent today and then I want to see what the "scientists" who projected this commercial powerplant planned to do about this minor detail: []

    By contrast, a large commercial power plant using ICF will require around five shots per second. Laser drivers also have low efficiencies, currently around 1% for solid-state lasers such as those to be used in NIF.

    99% efficiency loss right off the bat. What's left for these people to even argue about?

  • by InterGuru ( 50986 ) <> on Tuesday March 20, 2012 @07:07PM (#39420637) Homepage

    When I worked at the Office of Fusion Energy, US Department of Energy in the early 90's, we referred to ITER as "money ITER".

Order and simplification are the first steps toward mastery of a subject -- the actual enemy is the unknown. -- Thomas Mann