Here is one way to say a huge government research instrument has a pathetic history: "Over the past few years, NIF has been getting a fat "F"'. So blogged NPR's Geoff Brumfiel at the outlet's The Two-Way blog yesterday afternoon (Thur Feb 12).
Clean and on point. The news is getting tremendous pickup. A roundup of many examples of stories is below. They arise from a report in Nature – where Brumfiel used to work and covered just such news as this – dated today and promoted Monday by a press teleconference. Physical Review Letters last week had a paper on it, too. Scientists and engineers at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory say the facility's gigantic National Ignition Facility has still not ignited any gold-plated pellets of hydrogen isotope fuel after the billions of dollars and decades of development that led to its opening dedication about five years ago. No ignition despite the name outside the front door and, inside, despite its phalanx of 192 lasers (as big around as horses and stretching nearly a mile long if someone unfolded all the corners in each beam line) blasting them with power pulses of 500 trillion watts that trigger what the paper calls sublimely a "Planckian X-ray bath." That's a few hundred times the power – for a tiny twinkle of time – that the whole US economy requires.
But – here's the actual news rather than my snarky rendition – the violent compression on the tiny fuel pellets did goad clear signs that some of the fuel did undergo fusion. Not enough with enough constraint for the whole pellet to ignite, but something. Somehow I seem to recall that NIF's predecessors, Shiva and Nova, got some fusion going too. But the paper says that NIF's fusion efficiency, while low, is about ten times better than anything like it previously. It has to do with the energy from the fusion exceeding the laser energy that managed to enter the fuel pellet and go to work – but that so-called fuel gain is a small fraction of the energy the laser array sent out its optical nozzles. Full ignition would be better. Fusion that more than repays the entire Pacific Gas & Electric Co. energy dump, and bill, accrued by charging up and firing the lasers for one round would be nirvana for the machine's builders. Brumfield in his blog does a good job sketching the frustration that has built up around NIF. For years its builders promoted it in public mainly as scouting the path toward peaceful, cheap, unlimited fusion energy. After that did not happen as scheduled they turned more to talking up its real purpose: stockpile stewardship. That means 1) testing the materials and components in US military nuclear explosives to see if they remain reliable and, presumably 2) Maintaining a cadre of Department of Energy physicists and engineers intimate with such weapons at a nuts and bolts level.
It may have helped today's news burst that the lead author of the Nature report is named Omar Hurricane. Reporter: "Hey boss, gotta story here about a little bit of fusion energy progress." Ed: "Forget it. Lemme know when it cuts my electric bill." Reporter: "But a guy named Hurricane who designs H-bombs pulled the trigger on the biggest laser on Earth." Ed: "File it ASAP! Get some illus!!"
The tracker over the years has followed several rounds of news about NIF, much of the stories puffery but many of them fine, balanced examples of professional journalism. Posts include these: National Ignition Facility all bolted together – Apr 1, 2009, Nat'l Iginitiion facility ready to ignite. For fusion! (and the reliability of H-bombs?) – Feb 6, 2009 ; Nat'l Ignition Facility, the never-ending project, is half done – Dec. 10, 2007 ;
As have previous rounds of news on fusion, few if any reporters manage to cram into this news on inertial confinement fusion any mention of another expensive method being pursued – magnetic confinement, as in the ITER machine under construction in France.
This news got the attention of the largest crowd of hard-science reporters seen around here in a while:
- NYTimes – Kenneth Chang, William J. Broad: Giant Laser Complex Makes Fusion Advance, Finally ; Top paper, top reporters, fine story. History, outside experts, a smattering of technical insight, lively quotes. an apt metaphor ("they're closer to getting the match lit: ….
- TIME Magazine – Michael Lemonick: Nuclear Fusion Just got a Little Closer to Becoming a Reality ; Not only a good professional job on this news, but somebody had the wit to include a link to a story on the other big fusion experiment, the ITER magnetic confinement machine.
- USA today – Wendy Koch: Quest for pollution-free fusion energy takes major step ; A holy grail, and we have a few of them today.
- AP – Malcolm Ritter : Nuclear fusion project takes key step in lab test ; Nice job. Many writers led with the misleading fact that the test yielded more energy than was put into the fuel. That suggests something that Ritter puts straight when he put is this way: The amount of energy they got out of their experimental apparatus was minuscule compared to what they put into it." Indeed. The apparatus produced a mighty volcanic belch. The fuel pellet got just a mouse-burp's worth.
- Reuters – Will Dunham: US scientists achieve 'turning point' in fusion energy quest ;
- NatureNews – Philip Ball: Laser fusion experiment extracts net energy form fuel/ Milestone is passed on the long road to fusion energy;
- Los Angeles Times – Amina Khan: Nuclear fusion? Laser -wielding physicists find promising hints ; Nice job comparing ignition to lighting a fire with a match. It works if the conditions are right. Khan also offers up a load of zingy technical stats on the machines innards.
- Science NOW – Daniel Cleary: Baby Steps on the Road to Fusion energy ; First quote, not from the Livermore team, calls it a "very good place to start." At ScienceInsider, Cleary expounds further with the useful blog Fusion "Breaktrough" at NIF? Uh, Not Really …
- San Francisco Chronicle – David Perlman: Livermore Lab's fusion energy tests get closer to 'ignition' ; Good job from a guy who covered the old Project Sherwood in the 50s. His description of alpha particle bootstrapping: kudos.
- Wall Street Journal – Gutam Naik: A Star Is Born: U.S. Scores Fusion-Power Breakthrough ; Hed's overblown. Story is not nearly so hyperbolic, although describing the energy expressed by one pellet's fusion yield as "a vast amount of energy" is too much. The story finds an even, solid stride deeper along.
- Washington Post – Joel Achenbach: Fusion energy milestone reported by California scientists ; Nice job, and Achenbach knows what kind of news works best inside the beltway: news that has a politician in it. He calls a physicist who also is a member of Congress,Rush D. Holt, who frets that the US fusion program is lagging Europe, Japan, South Korea, and China. Holt also provides one of the better, if loopy, quotes. The new results are "nowhere close to making your electric meter run backwards." Holt may have attended too many briefings on rooftop solar panels. They reverse meters already.
- LiveScience – Tia Ghose: Fusion Leaps Forward: Surpasses Major Break-Even Goal ; Hed's overblown. Not sure what this definition of 'break-even' is trying to say: "…has produced more energy than was contained in the fuel that was put into the system..." ; Story does say the world remains "miles away" from safe nuclear fusion plants. Then it says we're also that far from a "nuclear fusion weapon" which really perplexes the brain and the ghost of Edward Teller too.
- Wired – Adam Mann: We're One Step closer to Nuclear Fusion Energy ; Like this! : "..the result does not mean that your Delorean is soon going to sport a Mr. Fusion reactor."
- New Scientist – Jacob Aron: Laser-sparked fusion power passes key milestone ; A good rundown at a reasonably technical detail. It is, writes Aron, "a step in the right direction."
- KQED (SF NPR-PBS) Molly Samuel: One Step closer to Nuclear Fusion Reactions ; Maybe hed meant to say 'reactors'? Gotta 'holy grail' alert here, too. Just like the LLNL press release in grist below. Story is a round-up, openly and with credit quoting from other news sources.
- National Geographic – Dan Vergano: Laser Facility Blasts Way to Fusion First ; Usual good stuff from Dan, including reasons to feel good about the news and a cold shower from a science writer – Charles Seife – who has written a history of fusion energy's allure and the spell it casts over physicists.
- Scientific American – David Biello: High-Powered Lasers Deliver Fusion energy Breakthrough; Lede: The power of the sun has edged a little closer to Earth. Under X-ray assault…" and so on. Nice.
- Christian Science Monitor- Sudeshna Chowdhury: Scientists achieve nuclear fusion milestone ; Not really a milestone and the story says as much. This news offers "a glimmer of hope," Chowdhury writes. This makes little sense, however: "..nuclear fusion reactions c0uld be used to harness energy from other sources, such as seawater." Hmmm – surely a mangling of the fact that seawater contains a decent fraction of deuterium, a hydrogen isotope useful for fusion.
- Popular Mechanics – Rebecca Boyle: Scientists Achieve Boostrapping, a Fusion energy Breakthrough ; A bit breathless. Bootstrapping by the way is a process – known for decades – by which alpha particles or helium nuclei induce currents that further heat a fusion-yielding plasma. Something like that. It seems a bit like fission chain reactions and is at heart an arcane term for a headline.
- Ars Technica – Akshat Rathi: Big leap for fusion: more energy produced than spent igniting fuel; That exact hed would work equally well for full ignition and net energy yield as it does, when finely examined, for this far smaller step. The story makes clear that we are far from practical fusion energy.
- The Hindu – Vasudevan Mukunth : We're one step closer to nuclear fusion but still miles away ; This blogger in India takes a long, diverting path to get to the news but overall makes a memorable effort with history, context, a bit too much enthusiasm. Here is a reminder that news like this gets received avidly, and fast, all over the world.
- Many good (or not so good) stories more are out there for sure….