Fusion Update: Signs of Life from the National Ignition Facility

The National Ignition Facility, or NIF, is a huge, 192 beam laser system, located at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California.  It was designed, as the name implies, to achieve thermonuclear ignition in the laboratory.  “Ignition” is generally accepted to mean getting a greater energy output from fusion than the laser input energy.  Unlike magnetic confinement fusion, the approach currently being pursued at the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor, or ITER, now under construction in France, the goal of the NIF is to achieve ignition via inertial confinement fusion, or ICF, in which the fuel material is compressed and heated to the extreme conditions at which fusion occurs so quickly that it is held in place by its own inertia.

The NIF has been operational for over a year now, and a two year campaign is underway with the goal of achieving ignition by the end of this fiscal year.  Recently, there has been a somewhat ominous silence from the facility, manifesting itself as a lack of publications in the major journals favored by fusion scientists.  That doesn’t usually happen when there is anything interesting to report.  Finally, however, some papers have turned up in the journal Physics of Plasmas, containing reports of significant progress.

To grasp the importance of the papers, it is necessary to understand what is supposed to occur within the NIF  target chamber for fusion to occur.  Of course, just as in magnetic fusion, the goal is to bring a mixture of deuterium and tritium, two heavy isotopes of hydrogen, to the extreme conditions at which fusion takes place.  In the ICF approach, this hydrogen “fuel” is contained in a tiny, BB-sized target.  However, the lasers are not aimed directly at the fuel “capsule.”  Instead, the capsule is suspended in the middle of a tiny cylinder made of a heavy metal like gold or uranium.  The lasers are fired through holes on each end of the cylinder, striking the interior walls, where their energy is converted to x-rays.  It is these x-rays that must actually bring the target to fusion conditions.

It was recognized many years ago that one couldn’t achieve fusion ignition by simply heating up the target.  That would require a laser driver orders of magnitude bigger than the NIF.  Instead, it is first necessary to compress, or implode, the fuel material to extremely high density.  Obviously, it is harder to “squeeze” hot material than cold material to the necessary high densities, so the fuel must be kept as “cold” as possible during the implosion process.  However, cold fuel won’t ignite, begging the question of how to heat it up once the necessary high densities have been achieved.

It turns out that the answer is shocks.  When the laser generated x-rays hit the target surface, they do so with such force that it begins to implode faster than the speed of sound.  Everyone knows that when a plane breaks the sound barrier, it, too, generates a shock, which can be heard as a sonic boom.  The same thing happens in ICF fusion targets.  When such a shock converges at the center of the target, the result is a small “hot spot” in the center of the fuel.  If the temperature in the hot spot were high enough, fusion would occur.  Each fusion reaction would release a high energy helium nucleus, or alpha particle, and a neutron.  The alpha particles would be slammed to a stop in the surrounding cold fuel material, heating it, in turn, to fusion conditions.  This would result in a fusion “burn wave” that would propagate out through the rest of the fuel, completing the fusion process.

The problem is that one shock isn’t enough to create such a “hot spot.”  Four of them are required, all precisely timed by the carefully tailored NIF laser pulse to converge at the center of the target at exactly the same time.  This is where real finesse is needed in laser fusion.  The implosion must be extremely symmetric, or the shocks will not converge properly.  The timing must be exact, and the laser pulse must deliver just the right amount of energy.

One problem in the work to date has been an inability to achieve high enough implosion velocities for the above scenario to work as planned.  One of the Physics of Plasmas papers reports that, by increasing the laser energy and replacing some of the gold originally used in the wall of the cylinder, or “hohlraum,” in which the fuel capsule is mounted with depleted uranium, velocities of 99% of those required for ignition have been achieved.  In view of the recent announcement that a shot on the NIF had exceeded its design energy of 1.8 megajoules, it appears the required velocity is within reach.  Another of the Physics of Plasmas papers dealt with the degree to which implosion asymmetries were causing harmful mixing of the surrounding cold fuel material into the imploded core of the target.  It, too, provided grounds for optimism.

In the end, I suspect the success or failure of the NIF will depend on whether the complex sequence of four shocks can really be made to work as advertised.  That will depend on the accuracy of the physics algorithms in the computer codes that have been used to model the experiments.  Time and again, earlier and less sophisticated codes have been wrong because they didn’t accurately account for all the relevant physics.  There is no guarantee that critical phenomena have not been left out of the current versions as well.  We may soon find out, if the critical series of experiments planned to achieve ignition before the end of the fiscal year are carried out as planned.

One can but hope they will succeed, if only because some of our finest scientists have dedicated their careers to the quest to achieve the elusive goal of controlled fusion.  Even if they do, fusion based on the NIF approach is unlikely to become a viable source of energy, at least in the foreseeable future.  Laser fusion may prove scientifically feasible, but getting useful energy out of it will be an engineering nightmare, dangerous because of the need to rely on highly volatile and radioactive tritium, and much too expensive to compete with potential alternatives.  I know many of the faithful in the scientific community will beg to differ with me, but, trust me, laser fusion energy aint’ gonna happen.

On the other hand, if ignition is achieved, the NIF will be invaluable to the country, not as a source of energy, but for the reason it was funded in the first place – to insure that our nation has an unmatched suite of experimental facilities to study the physics of nuclear weapons in a era free of nuclear testing.  As long as we have unique access to facilities like the NIF, which can approach the extreme physical conditions within exploding nukes, we will have a significant leg up on the competition as long as the test ban remains in place.  For that, if for no other reason, we should keep our fingers crossed that the NIF team can finally clear the last technical hurdles and reach the goal they have been working towards for so long.

Fusion ignition process,courtesy of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory

All Quiet on the Fusion Front: Notes on ITER and the National Ignition Facility

It’s quiet out there – too quiet.  The National Ignition Facility, or NIF, at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, a giant, 192 beam laser facility, has been up and running for well over a year now.  In spite of that, there is a remarkable lack of the type of glowing journal articles with scores of authors one would expect to see if the facility had achieved any notable progress towards its goal of setting off fusion ignition in a tiny target with a mix of fuel in the form of tritium and deuterium, two heavy isotopes of hydrogen.  Perhaps they will turn things around, but at the moment it doesn’t look good.

The NIF was built primarily to study various aspects of nuclear weapons science, but it is potentially also of great significance to the energy future of mankind.  Fusion is the source of the sun’s energy.  Just as energy is released when big atoms, such as uranium, are split, it is also released when the central core, or nuclei, of light atoms are “fused” together.  This “fusion” happens when the nuclei are moved close enough together for the attraction of the “strong force,” a very powerful force but one with a range limited to the very short distances characteristic of atomic nuclei, to overwhelm the “Coulomb” repulsion, or electric force that tends to prevent two like charges, such as positively charged atomic nuclei, from approaching each other.  When that happens with deuterium, whose nucleus contains a neutron and a proton, and tritium, whose nucleus contains two neutrons and a proton, the result is a helium nucleus, containing two neutrons and two protons, and a free neutron that carries off a very large quantity of energy.

The problem is that overcoming the Coulomb force is no easy matter.  It can only be done if you pump in a lot of energy to “light” the fusion fire.  On the sun, this is accomplished by the massive force of gravity.  Here on earth the necessary energy can be supplied by a fission explosion, the source of energy that “lights” thermonuclear bombs.  Mother Nature decided, no doubt very wisely, to make it very difficult to accomplish the same thing in a controlled manner on a laboratory scale.  Otherwise we probably would have committed suicide with pure fusion weapons by now.  At the moment, two major approaches are being pursued to reach this goal.  One is inertial confinement fusion, or ICF, as used on the NIF.  In inertial confinement fusion, the necessary energy is supplied in such a short period of time by massive lasers or other “drivers” that the fuel is held in place by its own inertia long enough for significant fusion to occur.  In the other approach, magnetic fusion, the fusion fuel is confined by powerful magnetic fields as it is heated to fusion temperatures.  This is the approach being pursued with ITER, the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor, currently under construction in France.

Based on computer models and the results of experiments on much smaller facilities, such as NOVA at Livermore, and OMEGA at the University of Rochester, it was expected that fusion could be accomplished with the nominal 1.8 megajoules of energy available from the 192 NIF laser beams.  It was to happen like this – carefully shaped laser pulses would implode the fusion fuel to extremely high densities.  Such implosions have already been demonstrated many times in the laboratory.  The problem is that, to achieve the necessary densities, one must compress the fuel while it is in a relatively “cold” state (it is much more difficult to “squeeze” something that is “hot” in that way).  Unfortunately, fusion doesn’t happen in cold material.  Once the necessary high densities have been achieved, it is somehow necessary to heat at least a small portion of the material to the extreme temperatures necessary for fusion to occur.  If that can be done, a “burn wave” will move out from this “hot spot,” igniting the rest of the cold fuel material.   Of course, this begs the question of how one is to produce the “hot spot” to begin with.

On the NIF, the trick was to be accomplished by setting off a series of converging shocks in the fuel material during the implosion process.  Once the material had reached the necessary high density, these shocks would converge at a point in the center of the imploded target, creating a spot hot enough to set off the burn wave referred to above.  It would be a neat trick if it could be done.  Unfortunately, it was never demonstrated on a laboratory scale before the NIF was built.  Obviously, the “trick” is turning out to be harder than the scientists at Livermore expected.  There could be many reasons for this.  If the implosion isn’t almost perfectly symmetric, the hot and cold fuel materials will mix, quenching the fusion reaction.  If the timing of the shocks isn’t just right, or the velocity of the implosion is too slow, the resulting number of fusion reactions will not be enough to achieve ignition.  All kinds of complicated physical processes, such as the generation of huge magnetic and electric fields, so-called laser-plasma instabilities, and anomalies in the absorption of laser light, can happen that are extremely difficult to include in computer models.

The game isn’t up yet, though.  There are some very bright folks at Livermore, and they may yet pull a rabbit out of the hat.  Even if the current “mainline” approach using central hot spot ignition doesn’t work, it may be possible to create a hot spot on the outer surface of the imploded target using a technique known as fast ignition.  Currently, “indirect drive” is being used on the NIF.  In other words, the laser beams are shot into a cylindrical can, or “hohlraum,” where their energy is converted to x-rays.  These x-rays then “indirectly” illuminate the target.  The NIF can also accommodate a “direct drive” approach, in which the laser beams are aimed directly at the target.  Perhaps it will work better.  One hopes so.  Some of the best old knights of science have been riding towards that El Dorado for a long time.  It would be great to see them finally reach it.  Alas, to judge by the deafening silence coming out of Livermore, it seems they are still a long way off.

And what of ITER?  Let me put it this way.  Along with the International Space Station, the project is one of the two greatest scientific white elephants ever concocted by the mind of man.  The NIF is justified because it cost only a fraction of ITER, and it was never conceived as an energy project.  It was always intended as an above ground experimental facility that would enable us to maintain our nuclear arsenal in the absence of testing.  As such, it is part of an experimental capability unequalled in the rest of the world, and one which will give us a very significant advantage over any potential enemy as long the ban on testing continues.  ITER, on the other hand, can only be justified as an energy project.  The problem with that is that, while it may work scientifically, it will be an engineering nightmare.  As a result, it is virtually inconceivable that magnetic fusion reactors similar to ITER will ever produce energy economically any time in the next few hundred years.

A big part of the problem is that such reactors will require a tritium economy.  Each of them will burn on the order of 50 kilograms of tritium per year.  Tritium is highly radioactive, with a half-life of 12.3 years, is as difficult to contain as any other form of hydrogen, and does not occur naturally.  In other words, failing some outside source, each reactor will have to produce as much tritium as it consumes.  Each fusion reaction produces a single neutron, and neutrons can interact with an isotope of lithium to produce tritium.  However, some of the neutrons will inevitably be lost, so it will be necessary to multiply their number.  This trick can be accomplished with the element beryllium.  In other words, in order to build a workable reactor, it will be necessary to have a layer of some extremely durable material containing the plasma, thick enough to resist radiation embrittlement and corrosion for some reasonable period of time, followed by a layer of highly toxic beryllium thick enough to generate enough neutrons, followed by a layer of highly reactive lithium thick enough to produce enough tritium to keep the reaction going.  But wait, there’s more!  It will then be necessary to somehow quickly extract the lithium and return it to the reaction chamber without losing any of it.  Tritium?  Lithium?  Beryllium?  Forget about it!  I’m sure there are any number of reactor design studies that all “prove” that all of the above can be done economically.  I’m also sure none of them are worth the paper they are printed on.  We have other options that don’t suffer from the drawbacks of a tritium economy and are far more likely to produce the energy we need at a fraction of the cost.

Meanwhile, ITER crawls ahead, sucking enormous amounts of research money from a host of more worthy projects.  A classic welfare project for smart guys in white coats, there are no plans to even fuel it with tritium before the year 2028!  I’m sure that at this point many European scientists are asking a simple question; Can’t we please stop this thing?

Fusion is immensely promising as a potential future source of energy.  However, we should not be seduced by that promise into throwing good money after bad, funding a white elephant that has virtually no chance of ever fulfilling that promise.  I suspect that one of these days we will “finesse” Mother Nature, and devise a clever way to overcome the Coulomb barrier without gigantic superconducting magnets or massive arrays of lasers.  Scientists around the world are currently working on many novel and speculative approaches to fusion.  Few of them are likely to succeed, but it just takes one.  We would be much better off funding some of the more promising of these approaches with a fraction of the money currently being wasted on ITER, and devoting the rest to developing other technologies that have at least a fighting chance of eventually producing energy economically.

Meanwhile, I’m keeping my fingers crossed for the NIF crew at Livermore.  It ain’t over until the fat lady sings, and she’s still a long way off.

The NIF: No News is Bad News

For those who don’t follow fusion technology, the National Ignition Facility, or NIF, is a giant, 192 beam laser facility located at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.  As its name would imply, it is designed to achieve fusion ignition, which has been variously defined, but basically means that you get more energy out from the fusion process than it was necessary to pump into the system to set off the fusion reactions.  There are two “classic” approaches to achieving controlled fusion in the laboratory.  One is magnetic fusion, in which light atoms stripped of their electrons, or ions, typically heavy isotopes of hydrogen, are confined in powerful magnetic fields as they are heated to the temperatures necessary for fusion to occur.  The other is inertial confinement fusion, or ICF, in which massive amounts of energy are dumped into a small target, causing it to reach fusion conditions so rapidly that significant fusion can occur in the very short time that the target material is held in place by its own inertia.  The NIF is a facility of the latter type.

There are, in turn, two basic approaches to ICF.  In one, referred to as direct drive, the target material is directly illuminated by the laser beams.  In the other, indirect drive, the target is placed inside a small container, or “hohlraum,” with entrance holes for the laser beams.  These are aimed at the inside walls of the hohlraum, where they are absorbed, producing x-rays which then compress and ignite the target.  The NIF currently uses the latter approach.

The NIF was completed and became operational in 2009.  Since that time, the amount of news coming out of the facility about the progress of experiments has been disturbingly slight.  That is not a good thing.  If everything were working as planned, a full schedule of ignition experiments would be underway as I write this.  Instead, the facility is idle.  The results of the first experimental campaign, announced in January, sounded positive.  The NIF had operated at a large fraction of its design energy output of 1.8 Megajoules.  Surrogate targets had been successfully compressed to very high densities in symmetric implosions, as required for fusion.  However, on reading the tea leaves, things did not seem quite so rosy.  Very high levels of laser plasma interaction (LPI) had been observed.  In such complex scattering interactions, laser light can be scattered out of the hohlraum, or in other undesired directions, and hot electrons can be generated, wreaking havoc with the implosion process by preheating the target.  We were assured that ways had been found to control the excess LPI, and even turn it to advantage in controlling the symmetry of the implosion.  However, such “tuning” with LPI had not been foreseen at the time the facility was designed, and little detail was provided on how the necessary delicate, time-dependent shaping of the laser pulses would be achieved under such conditions.

After a long pause, another series of “integrated” experiments was announced in October.  Even less information was released on this occasion.  We were informed that symmetric implosions had been achieved, and that, “From both a system integration and from a physics point of view, this experiment was outstanding,”  Since then, nothing.  

It’s hard to imagine that the outlook is really as rosy as the above statement would imply.  The NIF was designed for a much higher shot rate.  If it sat idle through much of 2010, there must be a reason.  It could be that damage to the laser optics has been unexpectedly high.  This would not be surprising.  Delicate crystals are used at the end of the chain of laser optics to triple the frequency of the laser light, and, given that the output energy of the facility is more than an order of magnitude larger than that of its next largest competitor, damage may have occurred in unexpected ways, as it did on Nova, the NIF’s predecessor at Livermore.  LPI may, in fact, be more serious, more difficult to control, and more damaging than the optimistic accounts in January implied.  Unexpected physics may be occurring in the absorption of laser light at the hohlraum walls.  Whatever the problem, Livermore would be well advised to be forthcoming about it in its press releases.  After all, the NIF will achieve ignition or not, regardless of how well the PR is managed.

All this seems very discouraging for the scientists who have devoted their careers to the quest for fusion energy, not to mention the stewards of the nation’s nuclear weapons stockpile, whose needs the NIF was actually built to address.  In the end, these apparent startup problems may be overcome, and ignition achieved after all.  However, I rather doubt it, unless perhaps Livermore comes up with an alternative to its indirect drive approach.

Iran: Dazzled by Fusion

According to Media Line, Iran is pressing ahead with plans to build a fusion reactor:

Rather than bowing to international pressure to curb its nuclear development program, Iran has announced a new project: a nuclear fusion reactor. On Saturday, Iran’s nuclear chief announced that, “The scientific phase of the fusion energy research project is being launched with no budgetary limitation.” The head of Iran’s Nuclear Fusion Research Center told an Iranian news agency that, “We need two years to complete the studies on constructing and then another 10 years to design and build the reactor.”

You go, Ahmedinejad! I can think of no more “useful” way for Iran to spend its oil wealth than on a fusion reactor. If it works, Islam will have a clear edge over Christianity in miracles.  The Crusader’s competing ITER reactor isn’t even supposed to be loaded with fuel until 2028.  Besides, as seen in the image below, we know large scale fusion reactors are scientifically feasible.

ITER on the Move, or White Elephants have Long Lives

The International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor, or ITER, is a prototype magnetic confinement fusion reactor currently being built at Cadarache in the south of France. According to a message by the new director of the ITER organization posted at facility’s Newsline,

The Baseline describes ITER all the way from the beginning of construction, through commissioning, and on to Deuterium-Tritium operation. The main milestones will be the achievement of First Plasma in November 2019 and the start of Deuterium-Tritium operation by March 2027 ultimately taking ITER to 500 MW of fusion power.

He adds that “The world is watching us closely.” If so, it appears we’re going to be watching closely for a very long time. Evidently the plasma physics guys are nursing this thing like an all day sucker. It sounds like the scheduled building time is already running neck and neck with the Great Pyramid, and will soon be giving some of the Gothic cathedrals of the Middle Ages a run for their money.

With any luck, some bright physicist(s) will finesse Mother Nature out of her fusion secrets using some known (see, for example, here and here) or yet to be discovered alternative to the “traditional” brute force magnetic and inertial confinement fusion approaches well before they ever get around to feeding tritium to this white elephant. Failing that, maybe the upcoming experiments on the National Ignition Facility (NIF) will be a lot more successful than I expect. Either way, some excuse to pull the plug on ITER is sorely needed. If nothing else, it will encourage some very bright scientists to do something useful with their talents for a change. All complex cost analyses done using the most up to date methods to the contrary, ITER will never be able to compete with the available alternative energy sources in terms of cost any time in the next few centuries.

“On Deception Watch” – The “Conspiracy” to Kill Fusion

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.

Action at ITER

It looks like they’re really serious about building this white elephant. Magnetic fusion facilities like ITER are scientifically feasible, but they are engineering nightmares, and will never be cost-competitive with the alternatives, except in the daydreams of the people who write reactor design studies for scientific journals. I’ve always been a fan of fusion energy, but there’s got to be a better way. Oh, well, I suppose this is one of the more creative ways for governments to waste money.

Cold Fusion and ARPA-E

According to it’s mission statement, the Advanced Research Project Agency – Energy (ARPA-E) is supposed to have more or less the same role within the Department of Energy as DARPA has for the Department of Defense. Quoting from the statement:

ARPA-E focuses exclusively on high risk, high payoff concepts – technologies promising genuine transformation in the ways we generate, store and utilize energy.

A statement of objectives on the ARPA-E website elaborates on this theme:

To focus on creative “out-of-the-box” transformational energy research that industry by itself cannot or will not support due to its high risk but where success would provide dramatic benefits for the nation.

Apparently the source selection guys who picked the first round of 37 projects to be funded by the new office never got the word. Read over the list, and you’ll find they have a distinctly incremental, chewed over flavor.   There are projects to train bacteria to produce biofuels, projects to make better batteries, projects to do a better job of removing CO2 from flue gas, etc.  All very interesting, but the chances that any of this stuff will be “transformational” are vanishingly small.  One project area that really is “high risk, high payoff” and potentially transformational is remarkable by its absence – cold fusion.

They’re taking a very dim view of the situation at the website of Cold Fusion Times. Their take:

Corrupt individuals within the US Patent Office and elsewhere continue to cover up cold fusion applications and other alternative energy inventions. ARPA-E and the DOE tricked scores of cold fusioneers to waste their time on proposals that went into the waste basket. For what reason? It is unethical that this has continued from the crash of the Exxon Valdez through the present disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. People around the world now believe that those involved in this coverup festering since 1989 should finally be held accountable.

I can understand the frustration, but that sort of hyperbole is both counterproductive and wrong.  I have seen no evidence that any of the individuals involved in the selection process are corrupt, or that there has been a “cover up.”  Orthodox energy scientists and bureaucrats would have nothing to “cover up,” because they simply don’t believe in cold fusion.  There was no attempt to “trick” anyone.

What we are really seeing at ARPA-E is hidebound conservatism, ignorance of what has been going on in the cold fusion community, and the time-honored reticence of bureaucrats in all ages to stick their necks out and risk ridicule by supporting anything unconventional.  I wouldn’t describe ARPA-E’s failure to fund a single one of the many cold fusion proposals it received, and its singularly bland choice of awards, as “corrupt” or “trickery.”  A more appropriate adjective that comes to mind might be “pathetic.”  These people have utterly and completely failed to grasp exactly what it is their organization is supposed to be doing. 

“High risk, high payoff?”  Get real!  Let’s hope they do better next time.

2009 Colloquium on Lattice-Assisted Nuclear Reactions (LANR) at MIT

“Stealth” Fusion Progress

It didn’t take us long to master the destructive force of fusion, but taming it for more constructive applications, such as electricity production, has been harder than anyone imagined back in the day when a popular slogan was “online by ’79.” Right, maybe in 2079 with any luck. We know of two scientifically feasible ways to get more energy out of fusion than it’s necessary to put in to ignite the fuel materials; magnetic fusion, as in ITER, or inertial confinement fusion (ICF) as at the National Ignition Facility (NIF). The problem with both approaches is not the science, but the engineering challenge of building reactors capable of generating electricity anywhere near as cheaply as the alternatives. At the moment, the chances that we will be able to do so any time in the foreseeable future seem remote.

If anyone around today lives to see the dawn of the era of fusion energy, it will probably be because some exceptionally clever researcher has hoodwinked Mother Nature and discovered how to finesse his way past the Coulomb barrier that usually keeps atomic nuclei too far apart to come within the range of the fusion-enabling strong force. Several promising candidates are already in the field, and one of them, Tri-Alpha Energy, has apparently managed to attract $50 million in private research funding. The company hasn’t revealed the nature of its approach, but it is apparently inspired by the work of Prof. Norman Rostoker of UC Irvine. One can get a broad hint from this paper co-authored by Rostoker and Tri-Alpha entitled, “Colliding Beam Fusion Reactors.” Rostoker is an emeritus professor who has been publishing papers since the 50’s, some co-authored with fusion superstars such as Nicholas Krall and Marshall Rosenbluth. Octogenarian physicists don’t often pull off such miracles, but you never know.

If he or someone else ever does manage to pull the fusion rabbit out of the hat, it would potentially put an end to our worries about energy for a very long time. It could also enable pure fusion weapons. Let’s keep our fingers crossed that it doesn’t.

Fusion Reaction

ITER: Throwing Good Money after Bad

According to the journal Nature, European nations hope to redirect more than €1 billion (US$1.25 billion) earmarked for research grants to make up a budget shortfall at the experimental ITER fusion reactor.  In an article that appeared in the July 7 issue, the editors note,

The proposal has alarmed scientists, who say that it will rob researchers of vital funds at a time when governments are planning to scale back domestic research budgets in response to the global economic downturn.

This is surely an understatement.  If I were a European scientist, I would be screaming bloody murder.  Like the International Space Station, ITER is a white elephant whose potential benefits will never come close to justifying the cost of building it.  It’s projected cost has tripled since it was estimated in 2001.  The fond hopes of the aging scientists who have devoted their careers to the pursuit of magnetic fusion energy will not be realized.  Like the International Space Station, ITER’s real effect will be to serve as a huge financial vacuum cleaner, soaking up billions in research money that could be much better spent elsewhere, including in the field of fusion energy research itself.

The problem with magnetic fusion, at least in the form represented by ITER, is that, while it is scientifically feasible, it will never be able to compete with alternative methods of producing electric power in terms of cost.  There are certainly hundreds of reactor design studies out there that claim the opposite, but, as the future will demonstrate if ITER is ever built, they are all wrong.  Among other things, the cost of a tritium economy has been grossly underestimated.  Tritium is a heavy form of hydrogen whose nucleus contains two neutrons in addition to the usual single proton.  Mixed with deuterium, another heavy isotope of hydrogen with a single extra neutron, it will be an essential fuel material in reactors such as ITER.  Deuterium occurs naturally, and is relatively common.  In other than trace amounts, tritium does not.  It must be produced artificially.  In order to produce the quantities necessary to keep a reactor like ITER running indefinitely, it will be necessary to surround the burning plasma with a thick layer of lithium.  Fast neutrons produced by fusion in the burning plasma can then produce the necessary tritium in nuclear reactions with this material. 

However, there is a slight problem.  Tritium is highly radioactive, with a half-life, the time it takes for half of any given quantity to undergo nuclear decay, of something over 12 years.  In spite of the fact that hydrogen is a notoriously slippery substance, passing with ease right through some types of metal, it will be necessary to control and contain kilograms of this material in a working magnetic fusion reactor.  In addition to its intrinsic radioactive hazard, tritium must also be carefully guarded to keep it from falling into the wrong hands.  For example, if terrorists were able to secure enough special nuclear material to build a nuclear bomb, they could potentially greatly increase its explosive yield by using tritium in the process known as boosting.  All this, not to mention the legal challenges that NIMBY’s are sure to mount to avoid living next to such an objectionable material, is unlikely to be cheap.

This and other potential show stoppers will insure that magnetic fusion reactors like ITER will never be able to compete economically.  Don’t believe me?  Wait and see.  It would be much better to use the increasingly scarce research dollars now being used to fund this particular white elephant on smaller projects, including fusion research projects, where it could do some real good.  Who knows.  They might even result in the discovery of a way to finesse Mother Nature after all and build fusion reactors that don’t need tritium and are economically competitive.