Nuclear Fusion: The Inexhaustible Energy Source that Never Seems to Arrive

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Nuclear Fusion: The Inexhaustible Energy Source that Never Seems to Arrive

In 1945, the United States exploded the first atomic bomb and, by the mid-1950s, commercial power plants based on nuclear fission were already under construction.  By contrast, the U.S. exploded the first hydrogen bomb in 1953, but 56 years later nuclear fusion power plants are still decades away. 

What's the difference?  The difference is that controlled replication of the conditions in the sun, necessary for a fusion power plant, is far more difficult than simply bringing enough radioactive material together to sustain a controlled fission chain-reaction. 

Until now, most of the billions of dollars put into controlled fusion research have been directed toward so-called magnetic confinement, which uses magnetic fields to heat and contain a dense plasma containing the hydrogen isotopes tritium and deuterium.  On the cutting edge of this effort is the internationally-funded ITER project being built in France.  That facility won't be ready until 2018.  Even if ITER meets its goals, magnetic confinement is not likely to lead to commercial fusion power plants in less than 30 years. 

On the other hand, a dark-horse competitor, called inertial confinement, has been hiding in the shadows for about 35 years.  Inertial confinement involves striking a tiny deuterium-tritium target with a laser beam so intense that the target implodes, and for a tiny fraction of a second becomes as hot and dense as the center of the sun.  The result is a tiny fusion reaction that converts some of the mass of the target directly to energy. 

Today, the leading edge of inertial confinement research is centered at the National Ignition Facility (NIF), located at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.  It is a sprawling complex that was funded back in 1997 to do one job:  Combine hydrogen nuclei to create helium with a net release of more energy than it takes to trigger the inertial confinement process. 

The $3.5 billion facility was originally conceived to help study nuclear weapons effects and to do basic research on what powers stars.  But more and more, its emphasis has shifted toward proving the viability of controlled fusion as a source of energy.

The fusion reaction at NIF will involve hydrogen isotopes inside a gold capsule no larger than a pencil eraser.  It contains a total of 192 super powerful lasers.  Each laser fires a pulse lasting just five nanoseconds.  They combine to form the highest energy laser in the world, with 4.2 mega-joules of energy.  That's about one-quarter of the instantaneous electrical generating capacity of the entire United States...

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