The NIF: Lots of Power and Energy, but No Ignition

According to a recent press release from Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) in California, the 192-beam National Ignition Facility (NIF) fired a 500 terawatt shot on July 5.  The world record power followed a world record energy shot of 1.89 Megajoules on July 3.  As news, this doesn’t rise above the “meh” category.  A shot at the NIF’s design energy of 1.8 Megajoules was already recorded back in March.  It’s quite true that, as NIF Director Ed Moses puts it, “NIF is becoming everything scientists planned when it was conceived over two decades ago.”  The NIF is a remarkable achievement in its own right, capable of achieving energies 50 times greater than any other laboratory facility, with pulses shaped and timed to pinpoint precision.  The NIF team in general and Ed Moses in particular deserve great credit, and the nation’s gratitude, for that achievement after turning things around following a very shaky start.

The problem is that, while the facility works as well, and even better than planned, the goal it was built to achieve continues to elude us.  As its name implies, the news everyone is actually waiting for is the announcement that ignition (defined as fusion energy out greater than laser energy in) has been achieved.  As noted in the article, Moses said back in March that “We have all the capability to make it happen in fiscal year 2012.”  At this point, he probably wishes his tone had been a mite less optimistic.  To reach their goal in the two months remaining, the NIF team will need to pull a rabbit out of their collective hat.  A slim chance remains.  Apparently the NIF’s 192 laser beams were aimed at a real ignition target with a depleted uranium capsule and deuterium-tritium fuel on July 5, and not a surrogate.  The data from that shot may prove to be a great deal more interesting than the 500 terawatt power announcement.

Meanwhile, the Russians are apparently forging ahead with plans for their own superlaser, to be capable of a whopping 2.8 Megajoules, and the Chinese are planning another about half that size, to be operational at about the same time (around 2020).  That, in itself, speaks volumes about the real significance of ignition.  It may be huge for the fusion energy community, but not that great as far as the weaponeers who actually fund these projects are concerned.  Many weapons designers at LLNL and Los Alamos were notably unenthusiastic about ignition when NIF was still in the planning stages.  What attracted them more was the extreme conditions, approaching those in an exploding nuke, that could be achieved by the lasers without ignition.  They thought, not without reason, that it would be much easier to collect useful information from such experiments than from chaotic ignition plasmas.  Apparently the Russian bomb designers agree.  They announced their laser project back in February even though LLNL’s difficulties in achieving ignition were well known at the time.

The same can be said of some of the academic types in the NIF “user community.”  It’s noteworthy that two of them, Rick Petrasso of MIT and Ray Jeanloz of UC Berkeley, whose enthusiastic comments about the 500 terawatt shot where quoted in the latest press release, are both key players in the field of high energy density physics.  Ignition isn’t a sine qua non for them either.  They will be able to harvest scores of papers from the NIF whether it achieves ignition or not.

The greatest liability of not achieving early ignition may be the evaporation of political support for the NIF.  The natives are already becoming restless.  As noted in the Livermore Independent,

In early May, sounding as if it were discussing an engineering project rather than advanced research, the House Appropriations Committee worried that NIF’s “considerable costs will not have been warranted” if it does not achieve ignition by September 30, the end of the federal fiscal year.


Later that month, in a tone that seemed to demand that research breakthroughs take place according to schedule, the House Armed Services Committee recommended that NIF’s ignition research budget for next year be cut by $30 million from the requested $84 million budget unless NIF achieves ignition by September 30.

Funding cuts at this point, after we have come so far, and are so close to the goal, would be short-sighted indeed.  One must hope that a Congress capable of squandering billions on white elephants like the International Space Station will not become penny-wise and pound-foolish about funding a project that really matters.

Author: Helian

I am Doug Drake, and I live in Maryland, not far from Washington, DC. I am a graduate of West Point, and I hold a Ph.D. in nuclear engineering from the University of Wisconsin. My blog reflects my enduring fascination with human nature and human morality.

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