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.