The NIF Misses its Ignition Milestone

We have passed the end of the fiscal year, and the National Ignition Facility, or NIF, at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) failed to achieve its goal of ignition (more fusion energy out than laser energy in). As I noted in earlier post about the NIF more than three years ago, this doesn’t surprise me. Ignition using the current indirect drive approach (most of the jargon and buzzwords are explained in the Wiki article on the NIF) requires conversion of the laser energy into an almost perfectly symmetric bath of x-rays. These must implode the target, preserving its spherical shape in the process in spite of a very high convergence ratio (initial radius divided by final radius), and launching a train of four shocks in the process, which must all converge in a tiny volume at the center of the target, heating it to fusion conditions. That will release energetic alpha particles (helium nuclei) which must then dump their energy in the surrounding, cold fuel material, causing a “burn wave” to propagate out from the center, consuming the remaining fuel. It would have been a spectacular achievement if LLNL had pulled it off. Unfortunately, they didn’t, for reasons that are explained in an excellent article that recently appeared in the journal Science. (Unfortunately, it’s behind a subscriber wall, and I haven’t found anything as good on the web at the moment. You can get the gist from this article at Huffpo.)  The potential political implications of the failure were addressed in a recent article in the New York Times.

All of which begs the question, “What now?” My opinion, in short, is that the facility should remain operational, at full capacity (not on half shifts, which, for various reasons, would reduce the experimental value of the facility by significantly more than half).

I certainly don’t base that opinion on the potential of inertial confinement fusion (ICF), the technology implemented on the NIF, for supplying our future energy needs.  While many scientists would disagree with me, I feel it has virtually none.  Although they may well be scientifically feasible, ICF reactors would be engineering nightmares, and far too expensive to compete with alternative energy sources.  It would be necessary to fabricate many thousands of delicate, precisely built targets every day and fill them with highly radioactive tritium.  Tritium is not a naturally occurring isotope of hydrogen, and its half-life (the time it takes for half of a given quantity to undergo radioactive decay) is just over 12 years, so it can’t be stored indefinitely.  It would be necessary to breed and extract the stuff from the reactor on the fly without releasing any into the environment (hydrogen is notoriously slippery stuff, that can easily leak right through several types of metal barriers), load it into the targets, and then cool them to cryogenic temperatures.  There is not a reactor design study out there that doesn’t claim that this can be done cheaply enough to make ICF fusion energy cost-competitive.  They are all poppycock.  The usual procedure in such studies is to pick the cost number you need, and then apply “science” to make it seem plausible.

However, despite all the LLNL hype, the NIF was never funded as an energy project, but as an experimental tool to help maintain the safety and reliability of our nuclear stockpile in the absence of nuclear testing.  The idea that it will be useless for that purpose, whether it achieves ignition or not, is nonsense.  The facility has met and in some cases exceeded its design goals in terms of energy and precision.  Few if any other facilities in the world, whether existing or planned, will be able to rival its ability to explore equations of state, opacities, and other weapons-relevant physics information about materials at conditions approaching those that exist in nuclear detonations.  As long as the ban on nuclear testing remains in effect, the NIF will give us a significant advantage over other nuclear states.  It seems to me that maintaining the ban is a good thing.

It also seems to me that it would behoove us to maintain a robust nuclear stockpile.  Nuclear disarmament sounds nice on paper.  In reality it would invite nuclear attack.  The fact that nuclear weapons have not been used since 1945 is a tremendous stroke of luck.  However, it has also seduced us into assuming they will never be used again.  They will.  The question is not if, but when.  We could continue to be very lucky.  We could also suffer a nuclear attack tomorrow, whether by miscalculation, or the actions of terrorists or rogue states.  If we continue to have a stockpile, it must be maintained.  Highly trained scientists must be available to maintain it.  Unfortunately, babysitting a pile of nuclear bombs while they gather dust is not an attractive career path.  Access to facilities like the NIF is a powerful incentive to those who would not otherwise consider such a career.

One of the reasons this is true is the “dual use” capability of the NIF.  It can be used to study many aspects of high energy density physics that may not be relevant to nuclear weapons, but are of great interest to scientists in academia and elsewhere who are interested in fusion energy, the basic science of matter at extreme conditions, astrophysics, etc.  Some of the available time on the facility will be reserved for these outside users.

As for the elusive goal of ignition itself, we know that it is scientifically feasible, just as we know that its magnetic fusion equivalent is scientifically feasible.  The only question remaining is how big the lasers have to be to reach it.  It may eventually turn out that the ones available on the NIF are not big enough.  However, the idea that because we didn’t get ignition in the first attempts somehow proves that ignition is impossible and out of the question is ridiculous.  It has not even been “proven” that the current indirect drive approach won’t work.  If it doesn’t, there are several alternatives.  The NIF is capable of being reconfigured for direct drive, in which the lasers are aimed directly at the fusion target.  For various reasons, the beams are currently being frequency-tripled from the original “red” light of the glass lasers to “blue.”  Much more energy, up to around four megajoules instead of the current 1.8, would be available if the beams were only frequency-doubled to “green”.  It may be that the advantage of the extra energy will outweigh the physics-related disadvantages of green light.  An interesting dark horse candidate is the “fast ignitor” scenario, in which the target would be imploded as before, but a separate beam or beams would then be used to heat a small spot on the outer surface to ignition conditions.  An alpha particle “burn wave” would then propagate out, igniting the rest of the fuel, just as originally envisioned for the central hot spot approach.

Some of the comments following the Internet posts about NIF’s failure to reach ignition are amusing.  For example, following an article on the Physics Today website we learn to our dismay:

With all due respect to the NIF and its team of well-meaning and enthusiastic researchers here, I am sorry to state hereby that sustainable nuclear fusion is predestined to fail, whether it be in the NIC, the Tokamak or anywhere else in solar space, for fundamentally two simple reasons paramount for fusion: ((1) vibrational synchronism (high-amplitude resonance) of reacting particles; and (2) the overall isotropy of their ambient field.

Obviously the commenter hadn’t heard that the scientific feasibility of both inertial and magnetic fusion has already been established.  He reminds me of a learned doctor who predicted that Zadig, the hero of Voltaire’s novel of that name, must inevitably die of an injury.  When Zadig promptly recovered, he wrote a thick tome insisting that Zadig must inevitably have died.  Voltaire informs us that Zadig did not read the book.  In an article on the IEEE Spectrum website, suggestively entitled National Ignition Facility:  Mother of All Boondoggles?, another commenter chimes in:

How about we spend the billions on real research that actually has a chance of producing something useful? There are a gazillion ideas out there for research that has a much higher probability of producing useful results. Must be nice to work for LLNL where your ideas don’t need vetting.

In fact, the NIF was “vetted” by a full scale Federal Advisory Committee.  Known as the Inertial Confinement Fusion Advisory Committee, or ICFAC, its members included Conrad Longmire, Marshall Rosenbluth, and several other experts in plasma physics and technology of world renown who had nothing whatsoever to gain by serving as shills for LLNL.  It heard extensive testimony on plans to build the NIF, both pro and con, in the mid-90’s.  Prominent among those who opposed the project was Steve Bodner, head of the ICF Program at the Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) at the time.  Steve cited a number of excellent reasons for delaying major new starts like the NIF until some of the outstanding physics issues could be better understood.  The Committee certainly didn’t ignore what he and other critics had to say.  However, only one of the 15 or so members dissented from the final decision to recommend proceeding with the NIF.  I suspect that LLNL’s possession of the biggest, baddest ICF computer code at the time had something to do with it.  No one is better at bamboozling himself and others than a computational physicist with a big code.  The one dissenter, BTW, was Tim Coffey, Director of NRL at the time, who was convinced that Bodner was right.

There are, of course, the predictable comments by those in the habit of imagining themselves geniuses after the fact, such as,

I am convinced. Garbage research.


Don’t these people feel ashamed telling so many lies?

after the IEEE Spectrum article, and,

It’s amazing to think that you can spout lies to the government to receive $6 billion for a machine that doesn’t come close to performing to spec and there are no consequences for your actions.

Following a post on the NIF at the LLNL – The True Story blog.  Fortunately, most of the comments I’ve seen recently have been at a rather more thoughtful level.  In any event, I hope Congress doesn’t decide to cut and run on the NIF.  Pulling the plug at this point would be penny-wise and pound-foolish.

One of the two NIF laser bays

2 thoughts on “The NIF Misses its Ignition Milestone”

  1. NIF (and ITER) are large machines built before science is understood and proven. Lasers and Tokamaks have repeatedly failed to deliver, only to justify ever larger investments.
    Alternative schemes like Sandia’s Z machine make less PR but deliver more. Watch out for fusion breakeven soon!

  2. The reason why the NIF did not achieve ignition is not that the laser energy is still too small, but the so-called Rayleigh-Taylor instability of the implosion. According to a scaling law by R. Kidder the enery needed for ignition is inverse proportional to the 6th power of the initial to the final implosion radius ratio, or vice verse this ratio is inverse proportional to the 1/6 power of the energy input. By increasing the energy input 10 fold for example, would only decrease this ratio by the insignificant factor 10^1/6 = 1.5. This means for ignition not more energy, but a smaller final implosion radius is needed than what the Rayleigh-Taylor instability has permitted us to reach.
    For this reason I had, going back to 1969, proposed cylindrical targets ignited with intense 10^7 Ampere multi-Megavolt ion beams where the magnetic field of the beam entraps in the cylinder the fusion alpha particles, and at the same time stabilizes the implosion. Cylindrical targets also permit a much easier way to implement the “fast ignition” idea first proposed by Basov and a few years later by Tabak from Livermore without citing Basov. More details can be found in my textbook “The Release of Thermonuclear Energy by Inertial Confinement” World Scientific 2010.
    Friedwardt Winterberg, Professor of Physics University of Nevada.

Leave a Reply