Nuclear Fusion Power Closer to Reality Say Two Separate Teams

by Nancy Atkinson on January 28, 2010

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Nuclear fusion. Credit: Lancaster University

For years, scientists have been trying to replicate the type of nuclear fusion that occurs naturally in stars in laboratories here on Earth in order to develop a clean and almost limitless source of energy. This week, two different research teams report significant headway in achieving inertial fusion ignition—a strategy to heat and compress a fuel that might allow scientists to harness the intense energy of nuclear fusion. One team used a massive laser system to test the possibility of heating heavy hydrogen atoms to ignite. The second team used a giant levitating magnet to bring matter to extremely high densities — a necessary step for nuclear fusion.

Unlike nuclear fission, which tears apart atoms to release energy and highly radioactive by-products, fusion involves putting immense pressure, or “squeezing” two heavy hydrogen atoms, called deuterium and tritium together so they fuse. This produces harmless helium and vast amounts of energy.

Recent experiments at the National Ignition Facility in Livermore, California used a massive laser system the size of three football fields. Siegfried Glenzer and his team aimed 192 intense laser beams at a small capsule—the size needed to store a mixture of deuterium and tritium, which upon implosion, can trigger burning fusion plasmas and an outpouring of usable energy. The researchers heated the capsule to 3.3 million Kelvin, and in doing so, paved the way for the next big step: igniting and imploding a fuel-filled capsule.

In a second report released earlier this week, researchers used a Levitated Dipole Experiment, or LDX, and suspended a giant donut-shaped magnet weighing about a half a ton in midair using an electromagnetic field. The researchers used the magnet to control the motion of an extremely hot gas of charged particles, called a plasma, contained within its outer chamber.

The donut magnet creates a turbulence called “pinching” that causes the plasma to condense, instead of spreading out, which usually happens with turbulence. This is the first time the “pinching” has been created in a laboratory. It has been seen in plasma in the magnetic fields of Earth and Jupiter.
A much bigger ma LDX would have to be built to reach the density levels needed for fusion, the scientists said.

Paper: Symmetric Inertial Confinement Fusion Implosions at Ultra-High Laser Energies

Sources: Science Magazine, LiveScience


Nancy Atkinson is Universe Today's Senior Editor. She also is the host of the NASA Lunar Science Institute podcast and works with Astronomy Cast. Nancy is also a NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador.

gopher65 January 29, 2010 at 6:42 AM


Whatever gave you the idea that PV solar power is clean? Who told you that? It isn’t.

The manufacture of all current, proposed, and even imagined solar panels produces ENORMOUS amounts of pollution per watt. And do you think those solar panels last forever? They don’t. Once they reach the end of their lives, you strip out a few key ingredients for (expensive) recycling, and then toss the rest in the trash heap. Because solar is such an un-dense power source, that means a freaking lot of toxic waste (you can’t just toss those panels in a city dump, any more than you can toss a motherboard or a CRT in there).

If the world was fully solar powered we’d all be living in domes to protect us from the poisoned world outside. So please, stop spreading that biased garbage about how solar is going to save us all. It won’t.

If you’re looking for the cleaner (and cheaper:P) power, wind and geothermal are probably the best options. If you’re looking for the most versatile form of (future;)) power, fusion is the best. Personally I’d guess we’ll use some mixture of the three, with other power sources (including PV solar) as a tiny, situationally specific, part of our energy solution.

Lawrence B. Crowell January 29, 2010 at 7:48 AM

Aodhhan, the additional arrow is to show the unstanble intermediate beryllium.

As for solar panels, the next step is with dyes, whch are printed on a sheet. Further, I think that graphene, a 2-dim layer of hexagonal carbon. with different P and N dopants will also become a solar cell of the future. The future of solar cells is not the hard silicon wafer we have now, but solar material on sheets similar to wall paper. To install it will amount to “cut, paste and clip on.” Currently a square meter is several hundred dollars, and I think in 25 years it could be $10 per m^2.


solrey January 29, 2010 at 8:25 AM

drflimmer, the approach taken by focus fusion with the dense plasma focus takes advantage of those instabilities rather than struggling to control them. A relatively weak toroidal magnetic field induces spin to control the direction of the axial electron and ion beams, and the B field also maintains ion temps hotter than the electron temps. It’s a very elegant and efficient approach, imho.

Anyways, the National Ignition Facility is primarily for weapons research and really has little to do with generating electricity as a powerplant, even though they give it some “lip-service” as a stated goal.

Lawrence Livermore Breaks Ground for NIF

Peña’s praise of the Laboratory’s scientific achievements was echoed by Tauscher, Tarter, Assistant to the Secretary of Defense Harold Smith, University of California President Richard Atkinson, and Livermore Mayor Cathie Brown.
Smith said that NIF underscores the importance of the collaborations between the national laboratories and the Department of Defense. “NIF marks a creative step toward meeting the needs of national security,” he said.

National Ignition Campaign Execution Plan
As stated in the NIF Justification of Mission Need, “The mission of the National ICF Program is threefold: (1) to play an essential role in accessing physics regimes of interest in nuclear weapon design and to provide nuclear weapon-related physics data, particularly in the area of secondary design; (2) to provide an aboveground simulation capability for nuclear weapon effects on strategic, tactical, and space assets (including sensors and command and
control); and (3) to develop inertial fusion energy for civilian power production. These ICF applications require the achievement of ignition and propagating thermonuclear fusion burn. To achieve this goal, DOE is proposing the NIF.”

There are no weapons capabilities in focus fusion, therefore no “gubment cheese” is getting tossed their way, which is a good thing because they have the freedom to do what they want.

Thameron January 29, 2010 at 9:15 AM

“Whatever gave you the idea that PV solar power is clean? Who told you that? It isn’t.”

I didn’t say PV solar. I said solar unless you are going to make the case that solar thermal is also unclean in which case our world is pretty polluted since it is heated that way. Are mirrors toxic as well?

“So please, stop spreading that biased garbage about how solar is going to save us all. It won’t.”

Where exactly did I say solar was going to ‘save us all’? Was that in the same place where I said PV solar? i.e. nowhere? Does one small blog comment really count as ‘spreading that biased garbage’? Really?

The only fusion power source currently making electricity here on the Earth is the sun. Saying fusion will be part of the electricity mix is optimistic at best. The first use of uncontrolled fusion energy by our species was in 1952. Engineers have had nearly six decades to master the technology of sustained controlled fusion and have yet to do so. In that distant future when a fusion power plant comes on line there may well be non-toxic solar panels that reduce or eliminate the need for it. And since it is the distant future we are speaking of we are free to speculate as we will.

Lawrence B. Crowell January 29, 2010 at 10:54 AM

@Thameron My only caveat with thermal solar energy is the word “thermal.” We have a hard time working with energy without converting it to heat and then converting that into mechanical or electro-mechanical forms. The entropy losses are considerable. However, it has been my thinking that small solar thermal systems could be devised; where solar concentrators focus photons on one piston of a Sterling engine and a cold water cycle cools the other piston which is pi/2 out of phase with the hot piston. So a modest system could provide a few kilowatts of electrical energy locally. These systems could be duplicated by the thousands, maybe millions, and provide local power sources relatively cheaply, particularly where there is no grid or distributed power.

The problem with current fusion research is that it requires large energy input to get an energy output. There are some complicated scaling rules with this, but with current approaches it will require an enormous fusion plant to achieve breakthrough with substantially more energy out than what is input. I tend to have some jaded opinions of such mega-projects. I might be wrong about this lithium cycle idea, but this should be possible on much smaller scales. We are going to need constant stable energy sources on a distributed grid to make up for down times which will naturally occur with renewable energy sources.


SpaceNinja January 29, 2010 at 12:51 PM

I guarantee you that fusion, and even fission, power is cleaner than all fossil fuel based energies.

And while it might not be cleaner than solar power, hydroelectric power, or others, it is many times more efficient and consistent.

Nuclear power is ultimately the direction the world needs to go. Barrels of nuclear material can be stored safely. Millions upon millions of liters of toxic gases from fossil fuels can only (as of now) get spewed into the atmosphere, destroying ozone, giving our kids asthma, and influencing our climate.

Lawrence B. Crowell January 29, 2010 at 1:51 PM

I agree in part, but nuclear energy, particularly fission powered, is problematic on a number of fronts. Nuclear waste is an issue which continues to defy any answer that is completely satisfactory. Nuclear energy also does not come cheap either. I pretty strongly think we need to maximize the use of renewable forms as much as possible. Nuclear energy can then fill in the power-down episodes which will occur for various renewable sources.


Johnson January 31, 2010 at 9:25 AM

I think these two methods are inefficient regarding energy usage. In my opinion, fusion methods that use electrostatic acceleration, as aneutronic reactor, has a more real chance of achieving a net gain
without leaving radioactive waste.

gopher65 January 31, 2010 at 5:25 AM

Thameron: Ah, sorry. In my experience when people say “solar” they are rarely referring to thermal solar. Yeah, thermal solar, while a defuse power source, is great in certain situations. (IE, areas with low cloud cover.)

Lawrence B. Crowell: Not all proposed fusion plants have gigantic. The Polywell project was originally conceived of as a way to produce micro-fusion reactors for use in space. Funding is now been largely provided by the US Navy, who are funding the research in an effort to find a replacement for their shipboard fission reactors.

We should know in about a year whether or not a Polywell type micro-reactor is possible in the real world. If the project goes black, it works:P.

Here’s a quick (very incomplete:P) rundown of Polywell:

gopher65 January 31, 2010 at 5:27 AM

… and obviously I meant diffuse, not defuse.

Lawrence B. Crowell January 31, 2010 at 11:39 AM

This is a variant of my proposal for lithium fusion.


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