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A Nuclear Fusion Breakthrough?

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For decades, science has been pursuing what seems to be the Holy Grail of energy production, the idea of tapping the same forces that work inside of a star, or are responsible for the destructive power of a Hydrogen Bomb, as an energy source. So far, they’ve encountered one blind alley after another and fusion power remains confined to the realm of science fiction. Now, however, scientists are reporting what may end up being a breakthrough that could lead to a virtually endless supply of energy:

Researchers at a laboratory in California say they’ve had a breakthrough in producing fusion reactions with a giant laser. The success comes after years of struggling to get the laser to work and is another step in the decades-long quest for fusion energy.

Omar Hurricane, a researcher at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, says that for the first time, they’ve produced significant amounts of fusion by zapping a target with their laser. “We’ve gotten more energy out of the fusion fuel than we put into the fusion fuel,” he says.

Strictly speaking, while more energy came from fusion than went into the hydrogen fuel, only about 1 percent of the laser’s energy ever reached the fuel. Useful levels of fusion are still a long way off. “They didn’t get more fusion power out than they put in with the laser,” says Steve Cowley, the head of a huge fusion experiment in the U.K. called the Joint European Torus, or JET.

The laser is known as the National Ignition Facility, or NIF. Constructed at a cost of more than $3 billion, it consists of 192 beams that take up the length of three football fields. For a brief moment, the beams can focus 500 trillion watts of power — more power than is being used in that same time across the entire United States — onto a target about the width of a No. 2 pencil.

The goal is fusion: a process where hydrogen atoms are squeezed together to make helium atoms. When that happens, a lot of energy comes out. It could mean the answer to the world’s energy problems, but fusion is really, really hard to do. Hurricane says that each time they try, it feels like they’re taking a test.

I’ve noticed that some of the media coverage of this story has treated the scientists findings as a massive breakthrough of some kind. While I’ll admit to not being an expert at all on this matter, it’s fairly clear that this isn’t really the case. Indeed, as the whole “cold fusion” fantasy taught us some 20 years ago or more, it’s best to treat any story in this field with a healthy dose of skepticism. One day, we may see the point where nuclear fusion becomes a viable source of energy. If and when that occurs, it will be a technological breakthrough on a par with the greatest in human history. We’re not there quite yet though.

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About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May, 2010 and also writes at Below The Beltway. Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. Brett says:

    Livermore’s been saying stuff like this for years. Maybe they’ve finally gotten more energy out of the reaction than they put into it, but it’s still pretty far from being able to actually create a self-sustaining reaction that would be useful for power generation.

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  2. grumpy realist says:

    It’s that the latest experiments are finally showing something that was predicted by theory, so the scientists are happy that everything is back on track.

    Big breakthrough? No. This only gets us back in to a position already long-trod by the EU and China. We’re already behind them.

    It is the first report of this milestone done in the US, which is why the WSJ and its minions are whooping it up so much. Conspicuously avoiding mentioning that groups in the EU and China had already reached this point.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  3. John Peabody says:

    Agree. I remember the cold fusion fanfare. That darn problem of independent replication of the experiement just messed everything up. The press releases had to be modified harshly.

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  4. michael reynolds says:

    @grumpy realist:

    Surely you don’t think the laws of physics will reveal themselves to foreigners?

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  5. gVOR08 says:

    This has been badly reported. The stories have been confusing as to breakeven. Reading through this time I caught, “We’ve gotten more energy out of the fusion fuel than we put into the fusion fuel,”. Energy put into the fuel pellet would be a fraction of the energy put into the facility. So a step forward, but not breakeven.

    Comparing serious work at Lawrence Livermore with the cold fusion fiasco strikes me as highly unfair.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 0

  6. john personna says:

    In other news,

    BrightSource desert solar project launching [today] Thursday

    “only” 392-megawatts, but the southwestern desert is big, really big.

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  7. Hal_10000 says:

    I don’t think you can compare this to cold fusion. Cold fusion was garbage. This is just the latest step in a series of advances in nuclear fusion. We’re still quite a ways from having this as a source of power though.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  8. grumpy realist says:

    @john personna: And they’re already saying that this is the last one of its kind to be built because it’s frying the birds that fly near it.

    My reactions: a) Darwin in action. If birds don’t learn to stay away from something hot….why do you think we have the epithet “bird-brain” anyway? How many people make a fuss about the number of birds who try to fly through windows and break their necks?
    b) There’s this low-technology thingie called a “net”. It strikes me that it just might be possible to put one of these things around the tower….

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  9. Tyrell says:

    Now this would be a great investment of federal money into research on a scale that would bring about progress in this area. This has been worked on for years. Now is the time for a “Manhattan” project type of program. Imagine unlimited free energy !

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  10. Stonetools says:

    I’ll believe we have nuclear fusion when I see it demonstrated on TV. We have been 20 years away from nuclear fusion power generation since 1950. I’m betting we are still 20 years away today, if we ever get there.

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  11. Tyrell says:

    @Stonetools: Another promising development is the amazing Tesla turbine. This has probably been kept under wraps by the government and power companies since it would result in free electricity for everyone. Now information about this has found its way to the public. See Tesla turbine. He called it his “greatest invention”.

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  12. DrDaveT says:

    “Fusion is the energy of the future — and always will be.”

    I’ve been tracking fusion research for professional reasons for years. I’m familiar with NIF, and with the various tokamak projects (JET, ITER) and stellarators.

    If NIF has produced actual ignition (in line with their name), that is news. It’s a necessary (but not sufficient) step on the road to practical fusion power. At worst, it saves them from complete ignominious failure as a fusion power experiment.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  13. Scott O says:

    @DrDaveT:

    This has probably been kept under wraps by the government and power companies since it would result in free electricity for everyone.

    You need more tinfoil. Even if the turbine was 100% efficient you still need steam or some other pressurized gas to spin it. And if there was really some miracle source of electricity that the government and power companies were keeping under wraps what’s to stop China from using it?

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  14. rudderpedals says:

    @Tyrell: I see what you did there

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  15. DrDaveT says:

    @Scott O:

    @DrDaveT:

    Um, no. That wasn’t me, nor even close.

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  16. Scott O says:

    @DrDaveT: Oops, sorry, meant for Tyrell.

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  17. Grewgills says:

    @Tyrell:
    When I lived in San Diego there was a UFO cult that believed exactly that. They also believed that Tesla was still alive and living in an underground city on Mars. Are you in psychic communication with Tesla too?

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  18. bill says:

    “omar hurricane” would be a great name for a band. hopefully a bunch of other labs don’t start reporting similar results- like they did during the cold fusion scam.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  19. RGardner says:

    I remember when fusion was just around the corner in the early 1990s when lots of Texas banks invested in General Atomics of San Diego. They had an interesting slag and replace torus model (run for 30 days, then replace shell, and bury the slagged one for 40 years, then no longer radioactive (negligible), and recycle. But they could never get to the Lawrence Number (energy out = energy in). A Texas banking crisis followed (way before Enron).

    I am a former nuclear engineer (I know how to send neutrons into Uranium and a few other elements and get lots of heat out). But containing fusion is still theoretical physics. But lots of small bits are coming together to maybe make this possible (superconducting magnets, processing, QA, material sciences….) so I won’t rule it out. I hope it happens, won’t count on it. Talk about a disruptive technology.

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  20. Jim says:

    All right if it uses an efficient thermoelectric converter. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aRZ—y5E2c

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  21. Tyrell says:

    @Grewgills: Not psychic communication; you tube communication.
    I remember hearing that the key to nuclear fusion is the mysterious stuff known as gas plasma.

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