In wandering here and there on the Internet I ran across mention of a new novel by David H. Spielberg entitled “On Deception Watch.” According to the Amazon blurb about it,
This is an epic drama about unlimited energy, the realignment of international power in a truly new world order unlike anything envisioned before, and deadly conflict between political and military centers of power. Controlled fusion energy ignites a firestorm of competing interests from within the top levels of government to the “oil patch” to the United Nations and ultimately to the world. How is it that a visionary physicist/entrepreneur was able to achieve the technological breakthrough of the century?
The author himself adds some detail to the picture;
I wrote a novel, “On Deception Watch,” that was triggered by my visit to KMS Fusion,” a real company that in 1975 really accomplished laser fusion ignition of a deuterium/tritium target and was then harassed to death by the federal government and its assets essentially looted by the feds. My novel is about the premise of a company that does what KMS Fusion did and then what. Check out KMS Fusion, Keeve Siegel, the president of the company, and my novel. One exploration in it is about what replaces the United Nations. The story takes place about 25 years in the future.
W-e-e-e-l-l-l. It wasn’t quite like that, and I doubt the author believes it himself. According to Xlibris, he has a Ph.D. in physics and, if so, I’m sure he doesn’t really believe KMS accomplished ignition back in 1975. Still, the above account isn’t going to mislead anyone whose tastes don’t already run to yarns about the Da Vinci Code, the Celestine Prophecy, and the Maya calendar, because the original papers about what happened then are still available, and many of the people who did the experiments are still around. We’ll cut Spielberg some slack and call it “poetic license,” forgivable from an author who’s just published his first novel. Regardless, the story of KMS is certainly fascinating even without such embellishments.
In fact, there was a guy named Keeve (or “Kip” as he was better known) Siegel, his initials were KMS, and he was a brilliant entrepreneur who, back in the 60’s, became convinced that inertial confinement fusion (ICF) was within reach using the laser technology then available. Gathering a crew of talented scientists, he founded KMS Fusion and built the “Chroma” laser in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and, without government funding, actually succeeded (in 1974, not 1975) in demonstrating fusion from a laser-driven implosion in the laboratory for the first time, beating embarrassed teams at Los Alamos and Livermore National Laboratories to the punch. It was a remarkable achievement, but was still orders of magnitude away from “ignition,” usually defined as equivalent to “scientific breakeven,” which occurs when the energy released from fusion equals the energy carried by the laser beams driving the reaction. Siegel, a very heavy man, died dramatically less than a year later, suffering a stroke while appealing for government funding before the Joint Congressional Committee on nuclear power. According to the Wikipedia article about him linked above,
At this time, KMS Fusion was indisputably the most advanced laser-fusion laboratory in the world. Unfortunately, outright harassment from the AEC only increased after the announcement of these results. According to one source in the faculty of the University of Michigan, the campaign against KMS Fusion culminated with a massive incursion into the KMS Fusion facilities by federal agents, who effectively put an end to its operations by confiscating essential materials on the grounds that, inter alia, all information concerning the production of nuclear energy is classified information which belongs exclusively to the federal government.
As usual, caution is due in taking Wiki at face value, and this account is pure mythology. The AEC was abolished in 1974, so was in no position to “harass” KMS. If the government continued to “harass” KMS after that, it chose an odd way of doing it, because KMS actually succeeded in securing a multi-million dollar government contract to continue its research after Siegel’s death. This was renewed several times, and KMS became a major player in the government ICF program, eventually becoming the lead laboratory for target development and production. The company eventually ran afoul of its sponsors at the Department of Energy in the early 90’s for reasons that had nothing to do with suppressing its research results, and lost its government contract to General Atomics, which continues as the “lead lab” for inertial fusion targets to this day. KMS continued a shadow existence for many years, but that effectively ended its role as a player in ICF.
That said, it’s quite true that there was friction between KMS and the inertial fusion guys at the national laboratories, just as there has always been friction between the national laboratories themselves. The teams at Los Alamos, Livermore, and Sandia all coveted the research dollars that were going to KMS, whose management didn’t endear itself by a bad habit of lobbying for earmarks over and above the funding DOE wanted it to have with the aid of Michigan representatives in Congress. The lab guys all seemed to believe that this money came out of their hide. They argued that the Chroma laser in Ann Arbor was obsolete, and that KMS should end experiments there and concentrate on target fabrication. Well, after KMS’ collapse, Chroma was cannibalized, the lion’s share of its optical innards going to Los Alamos. There, after being rechristened “Trident,” this “obsolete” laser continues in operation to this day!
As for ignition, it turned out that the slogan of “online by ’79” was a tad optimistic. Mother Nature had other ideas. The computer power available when KMS was founded was very limited, and the computer programs that had predicted the possibility of ignition with relatively small lasers like Chroma were limited to looking at the problem in one dimension. It turns out that multi-dimensional effects, such as the Rayleigh-Taylor instability, make ignition much harder to achieve than the first generation of computer codes predicted. It’s probably a good thing, too, because otherwise we may have succeeded in blowing ourselves up by now with pure fusion weapons. In any case, we kept building bigger laser facilities, eventually culminating in the recent completion of the National Ignition Facility at Livermore, a massive, 192 beam system capable of delivering a nominal 1.8 megajoules of blue (frequency-tripled) light. As its name implies, its goal is to achieve ignition, and the critical experiments designed to achieve that goal will take place in the next couple of years. I am not optimistic that they will succeed, but am keeping my fingers crossed that they do.
Meanwhile, I wish Dr. Spielberg every success with his novel. It sounds like a great yarn, and should bring a smile to the faces of ICF old timers.