Long post here on a short story.
It is possible that, by some contemporary metrics, the enormous and enormously impressive pile of extreme, applied optics and vacuum plumbing at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory called the National Ignition Facility qualifies nicely as an economic stimulus program. It took billions of federal dollars and turned them into a lot of jobs for metal workers, plumbers, electricians, and other skilled members of the building trades, plus plenty of physicists and engineers to produce the blueprints for this behemoth. It will generate scientific information plausibly fated to enhance industry and productivity and probably food for astrophysicists’ imaginations too. This year it is scheduled to go into action. It will get plenty of ink as it does. The flow (ok, ink is a metaphor) is already underway.
To wit, the Voice of America‘s Rachel Silverman gives it awestruck play in an account under the hed, Scientists at US Laboratory Ready to Create Fusion Energy. Her sole angle is that the goal of the machine’s creators and operators “is to produce energy the way the sun does -efficiently, cleanly and infinitely.” That’s a fine angle, we all hope it performs accordingly. But it is not the whole truth. The machine’s first justification is stockpile stewardship – the safekeeping and analysis of aging nuclear weaponry’s reliability via research that doesn’t actually light any such warheads off. It is somewhat difficult to go deeply into such things because good stuff is likely to be classified, or so close to it that employees at NIF might avoid taking any chances by talking about it. But any story on this machine, even one as brief as this, ought to acknowledge its primary purpose.
Second, and as she writes, this particular machine is exceedingly unlikely to ever, even in principle, release more energy from an imploding-exploding capsule of D-T fuel than it took to wham it with blindingly powerful streams of converging laser light. But the spirit of the piece suggests it’s a direct path to such an energy Valhalla. That’s a long shot – even longer than is the multination ITER project to build a giant Tokamak in France and get to fusion by the very different tactic of trapping a burning plasma within magnetic fields.
Third, she quotes science writer Charles Seife, author of the book on fusion called “Sun in a Bottle,” in a manner that suggests he agrees this machine may well open the door to commercial fusion energy. Seife’s book, in actuality, argues that for this generation and the next and maybe forever, fusion energy is but wishful thinking.
All that said, we will be seeing more stories on NIF. Many will glom onto the fusion energy hook. If The Tracker were to write one, I’d do that too. Almost surely, the physicists and others on the job are more emotionally bound up in fusion energy related possibilities than in the unromantic job of monitoring the health of warheads stored in deep bunkers and designed by people who have long since retired. Many believe that fusion power is its ultimate justification, whatever is written about weapons in the enabling legislation. For most, hope for civilian fusion energy gets their motors running. National security via credible nuclear threat is why they get pay checks. It’s been ten years since groundbreaking. I too can’t wait to hear that those 192 giant lasers work as planned and do amazing things.
Pic: NIF target chamber, tiny compared to the overall device, early in construction.
Grist for the Mill: LLNL NIF site ;