No ignition at the U.S. National Ignition Facility, home to the world’s largest laser.

When it comes to nuclear reactions, you’ve got your fission and your fusion. Both garner energy from mass according to Einstein’s famous E=mc2, but in a different way. Fission — the process at work in an atomic bomb or a nuclear power plant — gets the energy by splitting a relatively heavy atom* (heavier than iron) into lighter atoms and particles. Fusion, by contrast, combines two atoms lighter than iron into a larger atom and a whole lot of energy.

Most commonly, for example on the sun and in a so-called thermonuclear bomb, hydrogen** serves as the feedstock for the fusion reaction.

And in our world, fusion is the real deal. The fusion reactions on the sun provide virtually all of the energy that drives our world — photosynthesis, weather, pretty much life as we know it. And with the exception of just four elements — hydrogen, helium, lithium, and beryllium — all of the elements in our world are byproducts of stars and their fusion-filled lives.

Imagine a World with Virtually Boundless Clean Energy

If there were a choice between fission and fusion, it’d be a no-brainer. Fusion is the holy grail of humanity’s quest for energy security.

Two downsides to fission: it requires fuels like uranium and plutonium that are in finite supply and it produces radioactive waste. Fusion produces zero waste and requires only hydrogen — the most abundant element in the universe.

Talk about a game changer. Scientists have been thinking about how to bring this game changer into the energy game for decades. (See fusion/fission timeline.) As far back as 1946, two British scientists — Sir George Paget Thomson and Moses Blackman — filed the first patent for a fusion power plant.

But there have been a couple of hold-ups. To get a fusion reaction started, you need to slam the hydrogen atoms together really, really hard and that requires a lot of energy. (In a hydrogen bomb, the fusion reaction gets ignited by an atomic bomb, using fission. Not exactly the preferred method for your local fusion power plant.)

Even trickier is controlling the fusion reaction. It’s one thing to make a fusion bomb, it’s a lot harder to get the reaction going and keep it under control in a way that the amount of energy extracted is larger than that expended to initiate and manage the reaction.

Over the almost 70-year pursuit of the fusionary holy grail, it’s been fairly common for scientists working on the problem to say that they’re about 30 years away from achieving a power plant based on fusion. (See here and here.) The problem has been that while time has marched on, the 30-year horizon has remained fixed. Suffice it to say it has proven to be a very tough problem.

The Big Fusion Ten

Currently there are about 10 major projects underway around the world trying to get a net-energy producing reaction. Several basic approaches are being tried to compress and heat the fuel to get ignition: lasers, magnets, X-rays and sound waves.

In recent years, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory’s Laser Inertial Fusion Energy (LIFE) project at the National Ignition Facility (NIF) has generally been viewed as the most promising: “Completed in March 2009, the $3.5 billion [NIF] machine is the size of three football fields and has 192 laser beams. The now-operational facility is capable of directing nearly two million joules of ultraviolet laser energy in billionth-of-a-second pulses to the target chamber center.”

With the facility’s lasers up and running and breaking temperature records, hopes were running high for NIF over the past year or two. Bold statements and predictions peppered in its literature [pdf] also made a breakthrough look promising, such as “NIF will be the first fusion facility to demonstrate ignition and self-sustaining burn, as required for a power station,” “Demonstration of net energy gain from fusion fuel (On target, by end of 2012),” and (my favorite) “LIFE was the holy cow game changer.” NIF also indicated [pdf] that the timeline for the first commercial fusion power plant had shrunk — instead of 30 years, it was now a mere 20 years away.

In February 2012, Mike Dunne, the director for energy laser fusion, explained the progress in some detail and included a qualified time line: “Overall our anticipation is that the prospects of getting to energy break-even look like roundabout six to 18 months away. … It’s impossible to predict in detail exactly what will happen and what the surprises will or won’t be. But it feels around that time scale.”

In March the journal Nature reported “Laser fusion nears crucial milestone,” and quoted Lawrence Livermore National Lab director Ed Moses saying that, as far as the lab’s efforts on ignition were concerned: “We have all the capability to make it happen in fiscal year 2012.”

But by July 19, 2012, the fusion bubble was burst. An external review [pdf] of NIF by the National Nuclear Security Administration presented a mixed bag of praise — “NIF has demonstrated an ‘unprecedented level of quality and accomplishment’”— and circumspection — “considerable hurdles must be overcome to reach ignition … [G]iven the unknowns with the present …approach, the probability of ignition before the end of December is extremely low.”

Bad Timing

Just so happens that LIFE’s funding was to run out at the end of this fiscal year, which fell on September 30. Perhaps that’s why the fusion researchers were so publicly sanguine about having results by the end of 2012. So now the scientists hand off this energy holy grail to the politicians, transforming, at least for the time being, a scientific quest into a political football, or, you might say fusing the scientific and the political. What should Congress do? Scrap the project or double down? Just another spending issue poised on the fiscal cliff our folks on the Hill will have to wrestle with.

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End Notes

* A common fuel is the uranium isotope, U-235.

** Isotopes of hydrogen — deuterium and tritium — are typically used.

Comments

  1. Brian Richards
    Selah, WA
    November 12, 2012, 11:02 pm

    I’ve been interested in seeing these things work since the early 70′s. All the while hearing the same things – 20 to 30yrs away. I was convinced 10yrs ago that fuel cells were our best bridge to the future and built test systems to facilitate research. Alas only to see them languish similarly. So to Mr. Carter, if you truly think you’ve had the answer to this problem for the last 50yrs, I would emplore you to persevere in your quest to see this to fruition. If we can see Sonicare toothbrushes hit the market after 100+ rejections we should have seen your solution long ago.

  2. arie pambudi setyawan
    Surabaya, Indonesia.
    October 29, 2012, 10:20 pm

    I’m interesting that the clean energy concept .
    May I learning about that technology from concept until operation.
    So I can contributing to implementation that concept to helping our pollution, and energy problems at Surabaya, and or Jakarta, Indonesia. Thank you for your attention. Regards,

  3. Steve Cripe
    North Carolina, USA
    October 25, 2012, 8:38 pm

    Well if you are going to have to put it in the hands of politicians, it will be 30 years X infinity before anything gets done!

  4. Rick Carter
    USA
    October 17, 2012, 8:27 pm

    Well, I apologize National Geographic. It seems you did have the integrity to publish my comments after all. I will reward you with more information. In fact, I am going to send you the most promising design for this fusion reactor, complete with drawings and a full explanation to your email address askngs@nationalgeographic.com, so you all can evaluate whether I am telling “The Truth”. (sometime in the next several months.) – Rick Carter

  5. Rick Carter
    USA
    October 17, 2012, 7:38 am

    I knew you all didn’t have the integrity either. Have fun with your program “End Times”, everyone! – Rick Carter

  6. Rick Carter
    USA
    October 17, 2012, 4:57 am

    (I have been harping on this issue ever since the mid 1960s, when I first began studying thermonuclear energy. I have already come up with 3 viable designs over the years which use this bombardment of solid fuel targets approach, but to this very day no one wants to listen. In fact, most of the time they don’t even want me sharing this information with the public. I seriously wonder if National Geographic is going to be any different when it comes to keeping this information suppressed for the benefit of the fossil fuel industries, and the grave detriment of the entire human race.) – Rick Carter

  7. Rick Carter
    USA
    October 17, 2012, 4:33 am

    I prefer the approach of bombarding a solid fuel target, because you don’t lose any energy by trying to achieve a reaction. If you fail to achieve a thermonuclear reaction, the energy of bombardment still remains in the fusion reactor core in the form of heat, and is available for generating electrical energy alongside any heat energy generated by thermonuclear reactions which you are able to achieve. We could have had thermonuclear power plants operating on this basis for decades already, and I have been trying to tell them this for decades already myself. – Rick Carter

  8. Ralph Aranda
    San Tan Vly,Az
    October 12, 2012, 12:44 am

    The focus fusion machine has a better chance I think to do it 1st. They have eliminate two big chanlenges they have achieved confinement & Tempertures of 1.8 billion degrees they only need to get the density.