It seems like forever since the US Department of Energy started pumping money to the Livermore National Lab, in a broad valley east of San Francisco Bay, to build the National Ignition Facility. That was in 1997, with about $3.5 billion spent so far. The result is nothing like the LHC machine in Europe, but it is nonetheless one stupendously big machine for doing physics. In contrast to the LHC’s dive ever-deeper into the gears and rules of the universe, the NIF is almost pure applied science. Its 192 converging laser beams will force tiny pellets of hydrogen isotopes into brief bursts of fusion. The radiation that results ought to help nuclear weaponry engineers and other experts know how to tend the H-bombs in the US arsenal and if need be, perhaps design new ones. All without actually exploding any of them. More interesting to the scientists involved is the long chance they’ll find a path to fusion for a profit – by making electricity from the heat. Plus, who knows – strange things could happen when one lights off a teeny version of a star’s core. New physics, maybe. Such laser powered inertial confinement schemes have worked before, including at Livermore, but this one will be the best at it so far.
Just four years ago the Senate tried to cancel the thing. But the news this week is that it is finished. After a couple of years for shakedown, serious work is to start. The DOE said an outfit called the National Nuclear Security Administration has certified it. (It’s not just a building inspector who has a top secret clearance, but a serious arm of DOE, as seen at its web site) The press release, down there in Grist, is up front over NIF’s main justification – to aid in “stockpile stewardship” of nuclear weapons. But it primarily and cheerily declares it could help break US dependence on foreign oil and lead to breakthroughs in the worlds of astrophysics, materials science, and many other scientific disciplines.
There has been plenty of media verbiage leading up to the official green light for operation. Notably, NYTimes columnist Tom Friedman recently visited the place, surrendered his cynicism, and speculated a few weeks ago that just maybe maybe this could lead to a “holy cow game changer” in the energy business. Inside the boxy home of the machine, he writes, is a “vast internal steel forest of laser beams that must be what the engine room of Star Trek’s U.S.S. Enterprise looked like.” Friedman was so dazzled he didn’t write a word about NIF’s core, more pedestrian, and perhaps darker reason to exist: reliable H-bombs. Hmmm. Well, after all, the secret parts are … secret. Most reporters in this recent batch similarly focussed like laser beams on the jolly good stuff that can be discussed in public: limitless energy, new understanding of our universe, and such. As it has always been so: even if this pays off, practical reactors are many decades away.
If you should want a carefully balanced story with many asides for context from a veteran in the game, it’s at MSNBC at the Cosmic Log site, by Alan Boyle.
- San Francisco Chronicle – Jim Doyle: Scientists take another stab at nuclear fusion ; Very optimistic in tone, with the NIF boss quoted to say of fusion power’s practicality that the question “now is more when, not if.” Then he writes that if it doesn’t work, it could kill US fusion research. Hmmm, this story needs context. It has no mention of the magnetically-confined plasma route and the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor in the works.
- San Jose Merucry News/Contra Costa Times – Suzanne Bohanne : Lab’s fusion quest reaches another milestone ; Considerable doubt raised by skeptical sources, including one at the activist group NRDC. Nicely balanced. But no overall perspective on other fusion energy schemes.
- Wired Science – Betsy Mason: World’s Largest Laser Ready to Fire Up ; Good historic context, with credit to AP for providing the news.
- AP – H. Joseph Herbert: World’s largest laser now ready for use ;
- BBC: Giant laser experiment powers up ; The video takes advantage of some good, explanatory graphics on how it works. To a driving percussion beat it starts at the master oscillator room, zaps on into the pre-amplifier module, and thence follows a laser packet all the way through its boost, wavelength translation, roundy-bouts and bang into the target.
And the Prize for Originality goes to:
- Telegraph (UK) Richard Gray: The nuclear reactor that could clean up ; Most unusual of the bunch. Gray focuses on one rather speculative outcome of NIF research – a hybrid fusion-fission scheme that would employ fusion neutrons to spark the fission of uranium or other heavy metal fuels (sort of like in a fast fission reactor) and generate less waste than do conventional fission reactors. Boyle’s story, linked above, has more to say about that.
Grist for the Mill: DOE/NNSA Press Release ;