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Power Shark United States Science

Laser Fusion Put On a Slow Burn By US Government 143

gbrumfiel writes "Those hoping to laser their way out of the energy crisis will have to wait a little longer. The U.S. government has unveiled its new plan for laser fusion, and it's not going to happen anytime soon. It all comes down to problems at the National Ignition Facility (NIF), the world's most powerful laser at Lawrence Livermore Lab in California. For the past six years researchers at NIF have been trying to use the laser to spark a fusion reaction in a tiny pellet of hydrogen fuel. Like all fusion, it's tougher than it looks, and their campaign came up short. That left Congress a little bit miffed, so they asked for a new plan. The new plan calls for a more methodical study of fusion, along with a broader approach to achieving it with the NIF. In three years or so, they should know whether the NIF will ever work."
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Laser Fusion Put On a Slow Burn By US Government

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  • It is not about fusion power.

    It is about bombs.

    • by rubycodez ( 864176 ) on Tuesday December 11, 2012 @06:26PM (#42254793)

      what lie? the lab and government make no secret work done there in both fields, controlled fusion and thermonuclear bomb research.

      • by Anonymous Coward

        Well, actually its mostly about having fun burning shit with huge lasers, no bombs involved

      • what lie? the lab and government make no secret work done there in both fields, controlled fusion and thermonuclear bomb research.

        I didn't mean the government was lying, I meant that gbrumfiel (like many NIF fanboys) was lying. He said:

        Those hoping to laser their way out of the energy crisis will have to wait a little longer.

        Anyone waiting for the NIF to help us out the "energy crisis" will wait for hell to freeze over.

      • It's not even all about bombs. Yes, we know the research is going to bennefit bomb-making, but it's also a national security thing. If we can create a power plant with the immense power potential of fusion, we've effectively made a way to start weaning ourselves off of foreign energy on the fast track. Less dependency on foreign oil means we are not dependent on them. Not dependent means we can use fusion bombs without worrying about our oil supply... OK, so bombs are a pretty big part of it.
        • by mcgrew ( 92797 ) *

          Less dependency on foreign oil means we are not dependent on them.

          You missed it -- we are now a net exporter of energy, exporting more than we import. By 2020 we will have surpassed Saudia Arabia and will be the world's biggest oil exporter.

    • by Anonymous Coward

      Unfortunately, all power research directly correlates to war.

      Solar, wind and electric cars led to more efficient batteries which led to UAVs.

      Nuclear Bombs and nuclear power plants.

      Fusion power and fusion bombs.

      There's no getting around it, energy = destructive force. Instead, we should be focusing on retaking democracy and reigning in our leaders.

      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by Anonymous Coward

        All thermonuclear weapons are fusion bombs. They have been built since the late 50s. The designs have been refined, but we don't need to research much there. The bombs we have are powerful enough for all intents and purposes.

        • by kestasjk ( 933987 ) * on Tuesday December 11, 2012 @08:01PM (#42255541) Homepage
          It's not about increasing the power of new bombs, it's about increasing their reliability / taking care of old bombs without needing to do nuclear tests.
        • by Friggo ( 765910 )

          The fusion bombs are not really fusion bombs at all. They use fusion, yes, but the majority of the explosive power still comes from fission. The fusion part is only there to increase the amount of neutrons available to increase the efficiency of the fission.

          • You're getting confused. You're describing what is a boosted fission device. Fusion weapons are still vastly more powerful than fission devices in the biggest bombs.

            I know that various British dial-a-yield designs have at least three settings: 1) unboosted primary ~ 1.5kt, 2) boosted primary ~ 10kt, where tritium is injected into the primary to boost the number of neutrons available to increase the percentage of uranium/plutonium that gets fissioned; and 3) 1.5 Mt, where the fusion secondary is enabled.

      • by PaulBu ( 473180 )

        In the context of this article, I misread your last words as "and reigniting our leaders", which might be appropriate too! ;-)

        But, I am cheering for General Fusion anyway! http://www.generalfusion.com/ [generalfusion.com]

        Paul B.

      • Solar, wind and electric cars led to more efficient batteries which led to UAVs.

        Huh? Why does a UAV need more efficient batteries? The Predator has a 4 stroke Rotax ICE engine. The Reaper has a turboprop. Neither of 'em run on batteries.

    • by Anonymous Coward
      What lie. It's says so right in the article.

      The NIF's main mission is to gather laboratory data on the process to help weapons scientists to care for the ageing US nuclear stockpile.

      You're not in on a secret. We all know what the National Labs are for.

    • by mbkennel ( 97636 ) on Tuesday December 11, 2012 @07:10PM (#42255101)

      Please uprate previous comment. It is not a troll. The NIF project is funded primarily by the NNSA, the part of the Department of Energy which deals with the science & engineering of nuclear weapons. The DoE does not dispute this, it just likes to de-emphasize the reality of the primacy of the weapons effort.

      The design of the experiment and system matches the thermonuclear secondaries for weapons. Contrary to some people's belief, the nuclear physics is not difficult---it is the fluid mechanics and radiation transfer in extreme conditions which is the scientifically difficult part. (Radiation-driven secondaries are much much more difficult than fission primaries).

      The primary purpose of the NIF is to gain experimental data to calibrate the simulation codes for nuclear weapons engineering & reliability in the absence of nuclear weapons testing.

      There is a small energy related research project, but it is very very very far from practicality. There is little attention to actual engineering issues, compared to say ITER (magnetic confinement fusion) project, which is pretty heavily focused on engineering practicalities. Lasers are horribly inefficient energy transfer if you care about power breakeven but much better for making clean data for weapons code calibration. Most of the funded experimental runs will be for weapons, not energy research.

      In any case, neither inertial confinement nor magnetic confinement fusion will be used as a power source with customers for at least 60-100 years.

      We already know how to make nuclear reactors---and if we are not funding and churning out high-quality modular fission reactors now, it's foolish to think about fusion.

    • He's correct. The money all comes from weapons budgets.
    • by mcgrew ( 92797 ) *

      Insightful? Christ, people, we've had fusion bombs for sixty years; that's what a "hydrogen bomb" is. The comment is crackheaded, not insightful.

      • Insightful? Christ, people, we've had fusion bombs for sixty years; that's what a "hydrogen bomb" is. The comment is crackheaded, not insightful.

        From https://lasers.llnl.gov/about/missions/ [llnl.gov]

        National Security
        How can we ensure the nation's security without nuclear weapons testing? Maintaining the U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile as a deterrent against foreign aggression has been a mainstay of national policy since the end of World War II. No new nuclear weapons are currently being built, however, and the existing weapons cannot be tested under a nuclear testing moratorium established by President George H.W. Bush in 1992. To ensure the continuing reliability of the nuclear stockpile, Lawrence Livermore and other national laboratories are developing sophisticated supercomputer simulations to determine the effects of aging on nuclear weapons components as part of the National Nuclear Security Administration's Stockpile Stewardship Program. NIF will be able to provide data for those simulations by replicating the conditions that exist inside a thermonuclear weapon. In addition, the Photon Science & Applications program is developing a number of innovative technologies for homeland security and national defense.

        They then go on to claim that

        By demonstrating the ability to attain fusion ignition in the laboratory, NIF will lay the groundwork for future decisions about fusion's long-term potential as a safe, virtually unlimited energy source.

        but that is a byproduct, not what the NIF is designed for.

        The NIF is financed out of the bomb making budget. You appear not to know that.

        Amusing that my comment is currently:

        30% Troll
        20% Overrated
        10% Flamebait

  • by gestalt_n_pepper ( 991155 ) on Tuesday December 11, 2012 @06:24PM (#42254773)

    Fusion is nifty, but Thorium has already been done (and is being done overseas). It's more likely to yield results in the short to medium term.

    • +1 for India and there working Thorium reactor!
      • India has a working commercial thorium reactor?
        • by dbIII ( 701233 )
          I suppose they are working on making commercial thorium reactors, which of course is not the same thing, but nuclear fanboys tend to mix up proposed concepts and physical reality and use it for a bait and switch.
          The accelerated thorium stuff does appear that it will be vastly superior to an AP1000 (first one finishing construction soon I hear) or any existing reactor. When the first research reactor of this type is built we'll know a bit more (eg. plutonium fast breeders sounded like hot shit in 1968 when
      • +1 for India and there working Thorium reactor!

        +1 for India and there (sic) not yet working Thorium reactor!

        That's more like it.

      • by mcgrew ( 92797 ) *

        That looks funny... let me see if I can figure out what you were saying.

        +1 for India, and there! Working Thorium reactor!

        Capitalization and punctuation matter. Don't mind the homophones or spelling, they don't matter at all.

    • He's Fission for compliments :)
    • Wrong. Stuffing thorium into fuel rods and loading them into PWRs, is hardly revolutionary (difficulty of engineering the fuel rods aside).

      The interesting work is being done in liquid _core_ thorium-fueled reactors.

    • by AmiMoJo ( 196126 ) *

      Fusion is cheaper. We are only $80bn [slashdot.org] away from a working reactor, and then the on-going costs will be lower than Thorium.

      Building a viable commercial scale Thorium reactor is no small or cheap task. So far no-one has managed to run one successfully long term on even a moderate scale, and in addition there is a lot of support infrastructure to develop.

      We should be throwing our money at fusion and renewables.

    • by golodh ( 893453 )
      Most of us here already knew about ITER, thanks. A little more development of your thoughts (if any) would assist at this point.

      What might have escaped you is that ITER, while it does a good job of covering the Tokamak approach, still isn't *guaranteed* to succeed. Or to succeed *quicker* than inertial confinement fusion (shooting lasers at pellets).

      That's why it makes sense to hedge our bets with the laser approach at the NIF.

  • only Sandia's z-pinch machine and the polywell are looking even remotely promising anyway. ITER is a toilet for flushing down money

    • It's nicknamed "Money ITER"

    • ITER is a toilet for flushing down money

      All fusion research is a toilet for flushing down money. Even if they produced a working and cheap reactor tomorrow, it still couldn't be used because it's still nuclear. Greenpeace [greenpeace.org], for example, has outright stated that they'll oppose fusion because it's nuclear. The opposition to nuclear power is ideological, thus fusion will not help.

      • Someone ought to inform them about the dangerous potential of Sol - that it is a huge thermonuclear device which if allowed to continue developing unchecked will destroy life on the Earth within a billion years.

      • ... it still couldn't be used because it's still nuclear.

        Don't tell them that most smoke detectors are 'nukular' - they'll try to ban those, too, even though they save thousands of lives/yr.

  • by Twillerror ( 536681 ) on Tuesday December 11, 2012 @06:39PM (#42254877) Homepage Journal

    Besides being an ugly word it is imposing a sort of emotional response to something that is more practical and dare scientific.

    At the end of the day we have created fusion. Most of it came through bombs, but from a scientific standpoint we know about fusion.

    This is about creating a clean, reliable, cost effective energy solution.

    There should not be hard feelings or even a feeling of failure. The idea was sound enough to look into. Maybe it's just not practical. No use throwing good money after bad or crying over spilled milk.

    • how is it an ugly word?

    • by amicusNYCL ( 1538833 ) on Tuesday December 11, 2012 @07:01PM (#42255025)

      If we're suggesting words to stop using, I would like to nominate "boffin". A "boffin" is the term that a British journalist, apparently unable to distinguish an astronomer from a geologist, uses to describe someone who uses their brain in their job (as opposed to a British journalist).

      • "Boffin and Proud" since 1966.
      • If we're suggesting words to stop using, I would like to nominate "boffin". A "boffin" is the term that a British journalist, apparently unable to distinguish an astronomer from a geologist, uses to describe someone who uses their brain in their job (as opposed to a British journalist).

        He says, on a site billed as "News for Nerds." Like it or not, astronomers and geologists (and scientists of all kinds) have a lot more in common professionally with each other than they do with journalists, or politicians, or anyone outside the field; having a word that covers that particular group of people seems reasonable enough.

      • Many boffins died to bring us this information.
    • by Maury Markowitz ( 452832 ) on Tuesday December 11, 2012 @07:17PM (#42255167) Homepage

      "This is about creating a clean, reliable, cost effective energy solution."

      We already have those, and they actually work and generate profits.

      This doesn't work, possibly won't ever work, and can't possibly be profitable.

      John Nuckolls, the guy that pretty much single-handedly drove ICF research through LLNL, was presented with this problem when the concept was first seriously presented in the early 1960s. At the time he thought the fuel loads could be sprayed from an atomizer and costs fractions of a cent. The next 50 years of experimentation conclusively demonstrated this is *simply not possible*. Not "it's an engineering problem", but "not possible". Curing the Rayleigh instabilities requires target perfection that costs thousands of dollars a shot. And those shots can only ever return pennies worth of power.

      Do the math yourself. And when you do, compare it to current wind prices at 5 to 6 cents/kWh, solar around 10 to 15, or hydro at 1 to 2. There's more than enough of those three to produce every erg used on the planet, and they actually work, right now.

      • by Anonymous Coward

        Hydro isn't available in most places. How do you want to maintain power on those weeks that are overcast and windless? I don't know how to avoid the need to have capacity from nuclear and fossil fuels to meet 100% of demand for those weeks.

        • "Hydro isn't available in most places"

          That is true, there are places in the world without hydro. We would have to build a better grid to serve them.

          ICF doesn't work at all.

          Which of those sounds easier to fix?

    • by Guppy06 ( 410832 )

      Besides being an ugly word it is imposing a sort of emotional response to something that is more practical and dare scientific.

      And as we all know Congress, the miffed party in question, is all about the science [slashdot.org].

    • You do realize that the word "miffed" in TFS refers to politicians, right? And they're not particularly known for being "practical and dare [sic] scientific."

  • they'll be able to report that fusion technology is in fact merely 20 years away. I think I'll wait to make that reservation in 2036, however.
  • You need to contain the H fusion reaction in a metallic lattice. This is how the Sun really works,...the accretion model.
  • Fusion future (Score:5, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday December 11, 2012 @07:02PM (#42255033)

    If you want to get an understanding of the state of fusion research, you need to look at this graph [imgur.com]. Fusion power is not unreasonable, nor even very far out of reach. This interview is good reading as well [slashdot.org].

    If we want to get serious about global warming, we could do worse than funding more fusion research.

    • Re:Fusion future (Score:4, Insightful)

      by mbkennel ( 97636 ) on Tuesday December 11, 2012 @07:16PM (#42255149)

      If we want to get serious about global warming, we have to make mining and burning coal a capital offense, and shut down every mine and plant with the urgency of eliminating the slave trade.

      Instead, even eco-minded Germany is ramping up coal production and consumption because they started shutting down their reactors. There is a *new* 2200 MW coal burning plant in Germany. They foolishly believe that the competition is between nuclear and wind, and prefer wind (I do, but it's not remotely enough), and find that when actual joules have to be counted to keep the lights going, the coal gets burned.

      • Re:Fusion future (Score:5, Insightful)

        by Eskarel ( 565631 ) on Tuesday December 11, 2012 @09:58PM (#42256331)

        That's a great plan if you want to kill just about as many people as global warming will(possibly more).

        Fundamentally the survival of modern humanity is dependent on our access to energy. With access to sufficient energy we an survive most anything(including a 5 degree temperature rise, heck we even know how to destroy nuclear waste if we have enough energy to do it), without it, we're pretty well boned. Now I'd love to see coal phased out as soon as is humanly possible, but in a world where nuclear is off the table in most places and base load renewable energy is still unproven as far as I'm aware, we don't have that luxury. What we need is something which can replace coal without forcing us to drastically reduce either the reliability or supply of electricity. All indications are that fusion might be the energy holy grail, and we're going to need one.

        • Hey, it would be a two-fer, reduced output from coal, and reduced output from less humans.

          We need to cull 3 to 6 billion anyway, so how effective will his oversimplified solution be, and can we sequester their carbon in a coal mine? /sarcasm

    • I looked at your graph, and the only message it conveys is that someone pulled the idea out of their rear that if we spent more money on fusion research we'd get somewhere, and invented numbers for the investment required and when results would be achieved.

      I mean, those curves? They look like a kid scribbling with crayon. There's no iron-clad guarantee that *any* level of investment will lead to a practical fusion reactor. The only serious notion to be derived from that plot is that current US investment

      • by Alioth ( 221270 )

        There was no iron clad guarantee that the Iraq war would be a success (and by many measures, it's been a complete waste of time) but we still went ahead and spent $800bn on it anyway (the direct cost to the DOD, the actual complete costs are probably much greater).

        • Oh, I'm *all* for investing money into fusion--don't get me wrong. I think the Polywell should get its $200M to build a scaled up prototype, that tokamak fusion should be supported at 10x current levels, that the Superconducting Supercollider ought not to have been cancelled, research into how to get people into space long term (right now people in space is mostly just pissed-away money), PUBLIC research with results FREELY AVAILABLE into better, more drought/salt/disease resistant food crops, and more med

  • For the past six years researchers at NIF have been trying to use the laser to spark a fusion reaction in a tiny pellet of hydrogen fuel.

    When you say "tiny", what exactly are you comparing that to? Is the fusion reaction also "tiny"?

    • Re:Wait, what? (Score:4, Interesting)

      by Dr. Eggman ( 932300 ) on Tuesday December 11, 2012 @07:45PM (#42255393)
      Tiny compared to most things on day-to-day human scales. Here's an image [wikipedia.org] of the pellet.

      As for the reaction itself (and I probably have this wrong, so please correct me if you discover so) it would, best-case, generate 100-150 MJ, but I read the target chamber's design only allows for 45 MJ (realistic expectations, I suppose?) That amounts to 11 kg of TNT (yes this is all paraphrased from Wikipedia.) Certainly tiny by the standards of fusion/fission, but quite huge considering the pellet above.

      This might not seem like much, but it is a demonstrative design. Going for designs that would produce a practical commercial system at appreciable outputs would have been astronomically more expensive. Better to prove the concept first. Still more, this is a dual purpose facility; it's primary objective is stockpile stewardship. The potential for fusion research for commercial purposes is just added value.
  • Fusion is not going to happen. Ever.


    In this case I can get more specific:

    The NIF is physically limited to shots up to about 50 MJ. To put that in more familiar terms, that's about 14 kWh.

    At current baseload prices here in Ontario, about 3.5 cents/kWh, that shot is worth about 50 cents. That's assuming that we convert it entire to electricity, which is of course impossible. A more realistic conversion with 25% thermal efficiency gets

    • Although the funding and research at the NIF is no doubt aimed towards weapons research, its recent detour to support the National Ignition Campaign was basically a pork barrel project designed to channel federal stimulus money into california. For example, this earmark [washingtonwatch.com] among others. The funding was sold to other congressfolk as them voting for an alternative energy research program, and now that the results of the campaign have been spotlighted as a failure, they of course are wondering what they voted f

    • by EdZ ( 755139 )
      What, did you think NIF was actually going to be producing power? I assume you also class JET [wikipedia.org] as a total failure for not producing cost-effective energy, then.

      And that 'fusion will never happen' article cold be summed up as "D-T fusion is the easiest so is used in research reactors, and so must also be used in commercial reactors, and it has a bunch of problems in tokamaks, so fusion will never happen", happily ignoring a-neutronic fusion entirely, as well as other forms of confinement than purely magneti
      • Hello, I'm sorry to say this, but aneutronic fusion is probably never going to be a practical energy source.

        There's a reason D-T fusion is the focus. One problem is that all the aneutronic fusion reactions involve higher-Z (higher atomic number) nuclei. Higher Z nuclei have worse energy loss via Bremsstrahlung radiation than the D-T or D-D reactions. In a plasma hot enough to sustain fusion reactions, the electrons and ions are banging against each other, and every hit potentially makes X-rays or gamma rays, converting thermal energy into light. In a reasonable-sized thermal plasma, these photons pretty much just leave without interacting again, thus cooling the plasma.

        People have calculated that the energy loss rate from Bremsstrahlung in a thermal plasma composed of atoms capable of doing aneutronic fusion would exceed the rate that the fusion reactions would heat it. Thus, the plasma would cool right off, the flame would in effect "go out" because it would lose heat faster than it created heat via fusion.

        In a star, this works out, because a star is so very, very big that the photons from Bremsstrahlung are re-captured within the star: i.e., the heat can't escape because of sheer mass in the way. We're never going to pull that size and density off in a lab or an engineering installation.

        Now, if you can somehow arrange for the plasma to NOT be thermal, you may be able to beat this issue. However, keeping a plasma from thermalizing requires a large energy input, and is very hard to arrange for and preserve long enough to get energy from fusions. Inertial confinement might work (laser or Z-pinch or the like), there you potentially have very high densities for maybe "long enough" for Bremsstrahlung not to eat your lunch: I don't know. However, both laser and Z-type installations seem very hard engineering problems.

        The wikipedia on "aneutronic fusion" discusses these issues some as well.

        Anyway, that's one reason most are happily ignoring aneutronic fusion entirely. Another is that much higher temperatures are required for the aneutronic fusion reactions, and we haven't even got D-T going yet and that is the lowest temperature fusion reaction. D-T is where I would put my money, too, given the results of the physics calculations.


        • by EdZ ( 755139 )

          we haven't even got D-T going yet

          Not above break-even, but actually performing D-T fusion is relatively easy, to the point it has been done as a high-school science experiment using the old Farnsworth-Hirsch 'fusor' IEC design.

    • by Eskarel ( 565631 )

      Fusion is fundamentally possible. We know this because solar, wind, wave, and for that matter pretty damned near every other energy source we have was originally generated by the gigantic fusion reactor we call the Sun. There's still some question as to whether we can manage sustainable fusion, and some even bigger questions about this particular methodology, but the payoff if we succeed is pretty damned massive.

      • Fusion is easy at the stellar scale, since gravity takes care of both ignition and containment. On a smaller scale, we'll have to build and maintain machines for that which costs money. How much is hard to predict when we're still in the prototype stage, but there is no guarantee that fusion power will be cheaper than existing forms of power generation.

        • by Eskarel ( 565631 )

          Cheaper isn't really all that important in the long run a positive output of course is, but while nearly free energy would be excellent a clean relatively limitless supply of expensive energy is a lot better than a cheap supply of incredibly dirty or limited energy, as the other two options get a lot more expensive over time.

  • It's where 99.9% of the energy on this planet has come from and where 99.9% will ever come from. Sooner or later it's going to have to be our primary source.
    • by twistofsin ( 718250 ) on Tuesday December 11, 2012 @07:39PM (#42255341)

      It's where 99.9% of the energy on this planet has come from and where 99.9% will ever come from. Sooner or later it's going to have to be our primary source.

      So what your saying is the future lies in fusion?

    • and where 99.9% will ever come from.

      And you know that how exactly?

      You do realize that Sun is a humongous fusion reactor, by the way?

    • Sooner or later it's going to have to be our primary source.

      Solar power can't be our primary energy source because it requires covering huge areas with collectors, and no matter where you'll put them they're always in someone's back yard, or spoil someone's view, or destroy some sand bug's habitat.

      • You are assuming that we won't get the efficiency of solar panels and batteries up, or use dry sterile lands for our collectors. There's a lot of desert out there and we already have the grids to distribute energy from anywhere to everywhere (almost). Just image the creation of a cheap solar panels that are also roof tiles. Every single home could potentially be it's own power source in the future, and if we're going to survive as a species, I sure hope it doesn't come down to "Oh well our view is better wi
  • When has anything funded by the Federal Government not been on a 'slow burn?' The only things that have ever been fast-tracked are things that are seen as expedient by the masses, like going to the moon. But, did we go to the moon for scientific purposes? Nope. We went to beat the Red Menace, and for no other reason. NASA just happened to, you know, get science stuff done while they were there. Wake me up when clean energy becomes a politically expedient necessity for EVERY PARTY. Then things will happen.
  • = = = In three years or so, they should know whether the NIF will ever work." = = =

    Laser fusion has been three years away for, oh, 30 years now. Any day we're going to be the big breakthrough though. Just need a few more billion dollars...


  • we'd have fusion power in 30 years. And it's still 30 years away.

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