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Courtesy: Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory

The ignition chamber at the National Ignition Facility


Federal lab seeks to harness the reaction at the heart of stars

by Zach Stedt
Nov 03, 2010


The National Ignition Facility at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in is looking to the stars for inspiration to find solutions to the planet's energy problems.

“It’s no secret that fossil fuels are diminishing and we have to find alternatives. Wind and solar probably won’t be enough to sustain our needs” Lynda Seaver, a spokeswoman for the facility said.  “Fusion will have to be a part of the energy mix in the future.”

At an American Physical Society meeting next week, researchers from the National Ignition Facility in Livermore, Calif. will  present results from their experiments seeking to create a controlled fusion reaction.

Livermore researchers are using a massive laser to try to start a reaction similar to the one that occurs naturally in the heart of stars.  If this reaction can be harnessed, it has the potential to be a first step on a road to a source of clean, plentiful energy.  Energy that a planet with growing population and expanding energy requirements will need, Seaver said.

The facility is using a technique called inertial confinement fusion.  It works by using lasers to drive deuterium and tritium, two isotopes of hydrogen, together. Smashing isotopes together leads to the creation of helium and the release of energy, she said. 

Seaver said fusion is an attractive way to generate energy because it creates more energy than is used in getting the reaction to start.  The process also doesn’t create radioactive waste in the way nuclear fission, the type of nuclear reaction used in current nuclear power plants, does. In fact the process is so efficient that the amount of deuterium found in one glass of water can provide one person with a lifetime of energy, she said. 

While researchers are only using test targets in the ignition chamber at the moment, they will load fuel pellets into the chamber next year. 

Seaver said researchers think achieving fusion in one or two years after the fuel pellets are added is a real possibility.  

Greg Moses, a nuclear engineer from the University of Wisconsin in Madison, Wis., said, “If it succeeds, it’s a huge scientific advance. We have never gotten net energy from fusion on earth, but it’s hardly the whole story.  It’s the very first chapter of the story.”

Moses said that in order to create a functioning reactor, a whole new laser that can withstand being fired thousands of times a day will have to be developed. The laser at the National Ignition Facility is designed to be fired once or twice a day.

Seaver said that after an initial reaction has occurred, and with favorable government support, a demonstration fusion power plant might be up and running by 2020, with the possibility of commercial fusion power coming online by 2030.