Livermore lab nears launch of fusion quest

Sep 23, 2010 By Suzanne Bohan

Within the next week at a high-security building in Livermore, Calif., the size of a football stadium, scientists will hunker down to conduct an experiment backed by billions of dollars and promises to change the world's energy supply.

The scientists at the , or NIF, at Lawrence Livermore Laboratory are preparing to meet an end-of-month deadline for the first set of experiments in the final stretch of a national effort to achieve the long-sought goal of -- a reaction in which more energy is released than put into it.

Lab officials promised congressional funders that before Sept. 30, the end of fiscal year 2010, they would start "credible ignition experiments" in the enormous facility, which officially opened in spring 2009.

The facility's primary mission is to ensure the safety and reliability of the nation's aging nuclear weapons stockpile through fusion experiments. If fusion is achieved, it also would open the door for research into unlimited sources of energy, such as using seawater as fuel, and would allow scientists to study celestial phenomena such as supernovas in new ways.

"And credible means that we have no reason to believe it's not going to work," Thomas D'Agostino, administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration, which oversees the Livermore lab, told Sen. Dianne Feinstein during Congressional testimony in March.

However, most independent experts doubted that these first experiments this month would result in fusion ignition, according to a Government Accountability Office report released in the spring. Even Lynda Seaver, a lab spokeswoman, said this week that, in fact, there's no expectation of achieving ignition this month, given the composition of the fuel capsule at the heart of the experiment.

"This is not ignition. It will take a year or two to get ignition," she said.

Fusion ignition results when extreme pressures and temperatures force two or more atoms together, releasing helium atoms, neutrons and enormous amounts of energy -- far more than the energy required to generate the ignition. If all goes well, a burst of fusion energy in a lab setting would, in turn, fuse nearby atoms in a self-sustaining process known as thermonuclear burn. Fusion is the same process that gives hydrogen bombs their awesome explosive energy, and it also powers the sun and the stars.

For years, the Livermore lab has declared fiscal year 2010 as the year it would first attempt fusion ignition. In a 2005 Livermore laboratory newsletter, Ed Moses, now NIF's principal associate director, said, "There is more agreement and commitment to the goal of ignition in 2010 among our sister labs and the National Nuclear Security Administration than ever before."

In 2006, while requesting funding from Congress, Linton Brooks, then an undersecretary with the National Nuclear Security Administration, said that $423 million of the requested funds would go "to achieve the ignition milestone" in 2010 at NIF.

The Livermore lab's public affairs office did not respond to requests to explain the discrepancy between promises of a bona fide attempt at ignition this month with plans to in fact run experiments at the facility that would fall short of that. Seaver wrote in an earlier e-mail that "these experiments put us further down the pathway to ignition."

For Marylia Kelley, the director of Tri-Valley CAREs, a Livermore laboratory watchdog group, the fact that the facility will not be attempting fusion ignition this month is "actually shocking," she said.

"Its scientific goal was ignition," she said. Funding from Congress for the $3.5 billion facility -- a figure that Kelley disputes, saying it's closer to $5 billion -- was based on assurances of success within a certain time frame.

"They've been getting it funded based on that certainty," she said. "So they're abandoning any date certain for ignition, and that's notable."

Jonathan Gill, an assistant director with the Government Accountability Office and one of the authors of the agency's report, said, "There has always been this skepticism about can they do this by Oct. 1, 2010. I think over the long term there was more confidence they would be able to achieve ignition."

These experiments that start this month put the facility on the final stretch of the "National Ignition Campaign." The campaign is headed by the Livermore lab and includes partnerships with the University of Rochester, Los Alamos National Laboratory and Sandia National Laboratories. It started in 2005, and by 2012 the campaign aims to not only achieve ignition and reap excess energy from the reaction, but also to reliably repeat the fusion experiments.

One major milestone with the upcoming September experiments will be the fact that it's the first time NIF has used deuterium and tritium -- the two forms of hydrogen behind the powerful fusion reactions in hydrogen bombs -- in the peppercorn-sized fuel capsule upon which the facility's 192 powerful lasers direct their energy. NIF scientists will continue using the two hydrogen isotopes in their quest to achieve ignition.

But during these September experiments, there will not be enough deuterium and tritium in the fuel capsule to trigger , said Chris Deeney, assistant deputy administrator for Stockpile Stewardship Programs with the National Nuclear Security Administration.

Taking a stair-step approach toward ignition "was deemed a better way to get into the operating space where you would expect ignition to occur," he said.

The GAO report, published in April, focused on the daunting scientific and technical challenges that remain in the way of successful ignition. The glass optics, for one, are prone to damage from the powerful lasers, and it is unclear if it would be practical economically or technically to continue replacing damaged optics during fusion operations.

Instabilities between the laser beams and the plasma in a cylinder that holds the fuel capsule can thwart success, as energy for driving the fusion reaction can be lost. A loss of perfect spherical symmetry in the tiny fuel capsule as it compresses can prevent ignition, the report stated.

The GAO report also faulted lab officials for waiting until 2009 to form a scientific review committee, as suggested in 2005, to identify potential pitfalls. The GAO also advised having this committee report to the nuclear security administration, rather than the Livermore lab director, to increase candor in assessments about NIF. The report also detailed management weaknesses by the National Nuclear Security Administration that led to increased costs and delays in ignition-related activities.

The Livermore lab public affairs office declined to provide comment on the GAO report's findings. Deeney praised the report.

"We basically appreciated the GAO study," he said. "It was very thorough and very well done." His agency is implementing all of the GAO's recommendations, Deeney said. That includes forming a separate NIF scientific review panel that reports to the nuclear security administration.

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User comments : 26

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Mesafina
4.8 / 5 (9) Sep 23, 2010
When fusion is economical, will be the greatest day for humans since we discovered agriculture.
CubicAdjunct747
Sep 23, 2010
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
JRDarby
1.9 / 5 (12) Sep 23, 2010
When fusion is economical, will be the greatest day for humans since we discovered agriculture.

That the development of agriculture was a "good" thing is still, I think, up for debate. But I think there is little debate at this point that the discovery of economical fusion will be a good thing (for everyone except petroleum companies)!
LuckyBrandon
2.3 / 5 (3) Sep 23, 2010
you know, i cant help but think...what if binary star systems are systems where intelligent life once lived until they experimented with fusion enrgy and BAM, made another star and killed em all...
jking of course, but interesting thought in my mind...

On a sidenote...don't people get fired for not meeting deadlines...time to replace the staff at this place...
mertzj
5 / 5 (7) Sep 23, 2010
we need to put one onboard a space ship right away.

We need a spaceship to put it in first!
rbrtwjohnson
2.3 / 5 (3) Sep 23, 2010
we need to put one onboard a space ship right away.

We need a spaceship to put it in first!

http://www.youtub...AHXN_kAY
http://www.crossf...iew.html
Noumenon
3.7 / 5 (9) Sep 23, 2010
For Marylia Kelley, the director of Tri-Valley CAREs, a Livermore laboratory watchdog group, the fact that the facility will not be attempting fusion ignition this month is "actually shocking," she said.
"Its scientific goal was ignition," she said. Funding from Congress for the $3.5 billion facility -- a figure that Kelley disputes, saying it's closer to $5 billion -- was based on assurances of success within a certain time frame.


This Marylia dolt is treating this as if she ordered drapes for her kitchen which failed to arrive on time. Scientific technology doesn't work that way. We need to get away from this idiotic mentality and treat it as a Manhatten Project, even if it takes decades and even while it's practicality remains an open question. Where is General Groves who just got them what they required.
Husky
3.7 / 5 (3) Sep 23, 2010
General Groves has gone to china, along with the Technology transfer/licensing of Westinghouse AP1000 reactors...
braindead
3.5 / 5 (2) Sep 23, 2010
So usable fusion power is still "just around the corner" then? Nothing new there.
frytoy
4 / 5 (5) Sep 23, 2010
braindead:

No, fusion is right there, right in front of us, right in the middle of the frakkin road. It's here. We're just all so used to being disappointed, that cynicism seems like the only reasonable reaction - but we were bound to get here someday. Why not risk a little optimism, even if you could be wrong? Don't you worry that you might be participating in a self-fulfilling prophecy of negativism? "It will never work, better not fund it." I understand this position feels safe and maybe fits in with your worldview, but what does it really gain us? A few extra dollars in the general fund, or a $25 tax cut for you to spend on gas?
googleplex
3.7 / 5 (3) Sep 24, 2010
$5bn used to sound like a lot.
Now this sounds like a breakfast cereal toy project in terms of TARP, Stimulus, and QE.
This is certainly 1 thing that can save hard working Americans from being the slaves of oil rich states.
RankineCycle
3.3 / 5 (3) Sep 24, 2010
Fusion is worth researching, so long as we are not dedicating all of our funds and effort to it and leaving everything else in the dust.

More cheap high-grade energy will simply allow us to convert Earth's resources into garbage even faster, and this is what people will do with it. A more efficient engine is not used to make the car go farther, it is used to make it bigger, with power seats and more head room!

Noumenon
1 / 5 (3) Sep 24, 2010
What resources are you referring to (assuming fusion becomes practical in 20 years & solves the energy problem)? As resources become scarce they become more expansive and therefore are used less in turn. There is a natural balance.
Skeptic_Heretic
5 / 5 (6) Sep 24, 2010
$5bn used to sound like a lot.
Now this sounds like a breakfast cereal toy project in terms of TARP, Stimulus, and QE.
This is certainly 1 thing that can save hard working Americans from being the slaves of oil rich states.

And that's the saddest part.

Look at Keppler. That cost 60 million and we've learned more about the Universe from its mere months of existence than we did spending billions on wars with desert nomads.
Noumenon
1 / 5 (2) Sep 24, 2010
[I meant expensive above, not that it matters]

The government wastes so much money it's sad.
Caliban
4 / 5 (4) Sep 24, 2010
What resources are you referring to (assuming fusion becomes practical in 20 years & solves the energy problem)? As resources become scarce they become more expansive and therefore are used less in turn. There is a natural balance.


The argument could go either way.

With unlimited energy, one can easily imagine a Machine that could be continuously fed any material -rock, soil, biomass, refuse, metal scrap, industrial/nuclear waste, water, quite literally anything- and heat it to a plasma, that could then be fractionated into its elemental constituents, each of which could be harvested in pure form, and then recombined to manufacture pretty much anything imaginable.

The sky's the limit. Or, at least, the Earth's mass(until we could get the technology into space).

All depends on the actual inherent greed/ambition of Humanity.

Skeptic_Heretic
5 / 5 (4) Sep 24, 2010
Above and beyond Caliban's point, with such a great jump in energy production, the resources that we currently war over are no longer worth warring over.
Caliban
3.7 / 5 (3) Sep 24, 2010
Above and beyond Caliban's point, with such a great jump in energy production, the resources that we currently war over are no longer worth warring over.


That's exactly right -"scarcity" would become extinct, in practical terms. The Land of Milk and Honey.

But, my point was that people probably wouldn't (at least immediately) stop wanting more of everything- or trying to control the distribution of "Wealth".

Skeptic_Heretic
5 / 5 (1) Sep 25, 2010
That's exactly right -"scarcity" would become extinct, in practical terms. The Land of Milk and Honey.

But, my point was that people probably wouldn't (at least immediately) stop wanting more of everything- or trying to control the distribution of "Wealth".
That's why you get governments to start exporting infrastructure and technology. Make it a big race to the next innovation.

That way every country is competing for the knowledge and education spotlight, not the cash and oil spotlight.
mrlewish
1.4 / 5 (5) Sep 25, 2010
I can solve the energy crisis. It's called birth control and education/empowerment for women. Imagine only 1 billion people. what a world!
Skeptic_Heretic
5 / 5 (2) Sep 25, 2010
I can solve the energy crisis. It's called birth control and education/empowerment for women. Imagine only 1 billion people. what a world!

Wouldn't work as a permanent fix but it would greatly alleviate the population problem. The difficult issue is the impetus amongst some people to make a reduction of this sort by force, and that's wholly unacceptable.

A lot of our current problems are going to come in the next 20-40 years. Unless a lot of people don't plan on living past 15 a reproduction reduction wouldn't help on a relevant timescale.
MorituriMax
4.2 / 5 (5) Sep 25, 2010
@JRDarby,."That the development of agriculture was a "good" thing is still, I think, up for debate."

Where in the world is it "up for debate" whether agriculture was a good thing?
MorituriMax
3.8 / 5 (5) Sep 25, 2010
I can solve the energy crisis. It's called birth control and education/empowerment for women. Imagine only 1 billion people. what a world!


Why not just 100 thousand? And they can all live in mud hits, work the fields from dawn till dusk, no need for alcholo or entertainment, will have just enough kids to offset workers dying off, no art, books, or music needed since they have their work to keep them going.

I figure when the Sun runs out of hydrogen everyone can rest as the Earth incinerates. Thus, another star system in the galaxy will go silent and nothing will have been left behind to celebrate their passing.

Yeah, awesome future you have laid out for us mrlewish. Why are you even wasting time and energy posting online when you should be out making sure your own gene line goes extinct once you pass on. Anything else would just be damaging the planet.
Quantum_Conundrum
2.7 / 5 (7) Sep 25, 2010
MoriuriMax:

You'll find many(most) members of this community to be so high minded that their "wisdom" is nothing more than foolishness. They actually want everyone to die off, thus no motivation to advance anything useful to man, certainly not medicine or similar things.

The fact that this idiot questions whether agriculture is a good thing should be grounds for immediate permanent ban.
MNIce
5 / 5 (3) Sep 25, 2010

... I think there is little debate at this point that the discovery of economical fusion will be a good thing (for everyone except petroleum companies)!


Fusion power won't put petroleum companies out of business anytime soon. Petroleum is valuable for lubricants and chemical feedstock, especially for plastics. The coal miners are the ones who may have to find something else to do.

However, Ignition is only the first step on a very long road. There will be many challenges in the harvesting of any net energy release before we get there.
Baseline
not rated yet Sep 27, 2010
Yes the first step on a long road based on what could turn out to be an incorret supposition about how our star actually works.

It is funny how often the truths we cling to turn out to be wrong. But we are betting billions of tax dollars on this experiment so I sure hope they got it right this time.

I cant wait to see how this turns out.
Justavian
5 / 5 (1) Sep 27, 2010
Too bad they didn't spend that 5 billion on thorium reactors. As much as i'd love to see feasible fusion, this 5 billion is just a drop in the bucket towards something commercially viable. For that same amount of money, we might very well already have LFTR reactors running right now.