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Is fusion success in sight?
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Posted 2010-01-30, 04:54 PM
Is fusion success in sight?



Experiments at the National Ignition Facility have given researchers confidence that they'll achieve a milestone in nuclear fusion sometime this year.

The tests involved blasting a cylinder the size of a pencil eraser, known as a "hohlraum," with 192 laser beams and seeing whether researchers could tweak the energy to create the right kind of implosion. The results suggested that they could - and that the $3.5 billion blaster in California just might produce the world's first controlled fusion reaction, with more energy coming out than going in.

For more than a half-century, scientists have been trying to harness the nuclear fusion reaction to generate what could be prodigious amounts of energy. The reaction involves crushing together light atoms (like hydrogen) so forcefully that they fuse into heavier atoms (like helium). Each reaction converts a tiny amount of mass from the atoms directly into energy.

When you multiply that demonstration of E=mc2 by trillions, you start producing power on the scale of an H-bomb or the sun.

The research reported by the National Ignition Facility, or NIF, represents a step toward actual energy production in a controlled reaction. But there are still many steps to go before scientists reach that break-even point. Even if NIF is successful, it will take years to adapt the technology for commercial applications. And that's the most optimistic view.

Jeffrey Atherton, the program director for target experimental systems at NIF, is an optimist.

"The potential for NIF and fusion energy as the game-changer [for energy resources] is enormous," he told me. He acknowledged that commercial fusion was far from a sure bet, but said the technology had to be included in the nation's portfolio of energy research. "You have to invest in things that could have risk associated with them, but also have enormous benefits should they play out," Atherton said.

The initial tests at NIF, built at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in Northern California, have made Atherton and his colleagues feel more comfortable about the investment. Those tests are detailed today in a research paper published online by the journal Science.

"When we extrapolate the results of the initial experiments to higher-energy shots on full-sized hohlraums, we feel we will be able to create the necessary hohlraum conditions to drive an implosion to ignition later this year," Siegfried Glenzer, plasma physics group leader at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, told me in an e-mail.


What's a hohlraum?
The term "hohlraum" comes from the German words for "hollow area." Hohlraums are hollow, gold-plated cylinders that are structured to spread the energy from the laser beams into a inward-pointing blast of X-rays, all focused on a target the size of a small pea. The target is a precisely machined, spherical pellet of beryllium, containing the stuff to be imploded.

For the real ignition shots, the targets will be filled with a cryogenically cooled dollop of deuterium-tritium fusion fuel. Deuterium and tritium are two isotopes of hydrogen that are particularly well-suited for fusion. If the researchers do it right, that tiny bit of fuel would be compressed by a factor of 1,000 or more, and reach temperatures approaching 100 million degrees Celsius (180 million degrees Fahrenheit). That's hotter than the sun.

For the tests described in the Science paper, the hohlraums were smaller, the targets were filled with plain old hydrogen and helium, and the temperatures reached a mere 3.3 million degrees C (6 million degrees F). The resulting reaction fell far short of break-even fusion, but Atherton said it confirmed that NIF was on the right track.

"The point is that we were doing it at a scale that's about 20 times larger than has been done, with a laser power that accordingly is about 20 times higher than has been done, with a precision and efficiency that hasn't been done before," he said.


Dealing with uncertainty
One big challenge was to aim the laser beams so precisely that the target was heated evenly. If the heating is the slightest bit uneven, the fusion fuel will splurt away before it implodes enough to create the pressure and temperature required for ignition. That's essentially what happened at NIF's predecessor, the $200 million Nova laser facility. But researchers said they were satisfied with the uniformity of heating at NIF.

"We also demonstrated a very elegant way of tuning the symmetry of the laser beams, by making very subtle changes in the color of the wavelength in the cone of these beams," Atherton said.

Glenzer told me the wavelength-tuning trick "was predicted to work, but could only be tested on full NIF experiments described in this paper." More than 90 percent of the laser energy was absorbed by the hohlraums - which is more than was predicted by the pre-test simulations.

The experiments demonstrated that researchers could "overcome the biggest physics uncertainty in laser fusion - namely, we showed that we can heat hohlraums to temperature and radiation symmetry close to what is needed for ignition," Glenzer said.

Atherton echoed those comments in more down-to-earth terms: "Given the very positive results out of last summer and fall, we do feel much more confident about the feasibility of fusion as an energy source," he told me.

The tests described in Science were conducted last year at an energy level of 0.7 megajoules. Since then, NIF has ramped up to the 1-megajoule level, and Atherton said "our ignition experiments will be operating at a laser energy of 1.2 or 1.3 megajoules this summer."


Energy source of the future?
The results impressed other experts. "They're ahead of the curve predicted," Mike Dunne, director of the Central Laser Facility of Britain's Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, told Science.

"It's definitely a very capable and interesting machine," said Charles Seife, a longtime science writer and journalism professor at New York University who wrote a book about the fusion quest titled "Sun in a Bottle."

However, it remains to be seen whether reality will follow the predicted path. In his book, Seife shows that the course of true fusion never did run smooth, despite repeated predictions that success was just a few years and a few (million? billion?) dollars away. The classic joke is that fusion is the "energy source of the future - and always will be."

Even Atherton acknowledges that NIF's nanosecond-long shots can't be harnessed for commercial purposes in the near term. The shots would have to occur "10 times per second, as opposed to once every few hours, or days, or pick your unit of time," he said.

Researchers say NIF could blaze a trail for more commercially viable concepts. For example, the Laser Inertial Fusion Engine, or LIFE, would use laser shots to generate neutrons for a hybrid fusion-fission reaction.

However, in the long run, it may turn out that one of the other approaches to fusion will be more fruitful. Maybe it'll be the $13 billion magnet-based ITER project taking shape in France. There are also a number of dark-horse candidates - such as the low-cost, high-voltage system currently being funded by the Navy, or the levitating-magnet system that came into the spotlight just this week.

Atherton said NIF would almost certainly be the first technology to reach the break-even point - but he said it made sense to investigate other paths to fusion as well. "We don't look at this as a competition, as much as that we're all in a race to develop clean energy resources," he said. He recognized that other energy technologies - including biofuels, solar, wind and safer fission reactors - also had to be funded.

"Many people who study this and try to take a considered, balanced perspective actually believe that it's important to invest in all of these technologies," Atherton said.


Beyond energy production
Atherton pointed out that fusion research isn't aimed exclusively at commercial energy production. The knowledge gained at NIF could also be applied to astrophysics and nuclear physics - that is, the science behind what happens in stars. "There's a whole wealth of basic science that could be done with this type of burning-plasma creation," he said. "That could give physicists the ability of doing experiments looking inward instead of outward."

There's yet another big reason why the U.S. Department of Energy has spent billions of dollars on NIF: "The physical conditions created with an ignition-type target can be used to study important physics questions related to the safety and reliability of the nuclear stockpile," Atherton said.

Seife suspects that the weapons issue is the key to NIF's existence, but he hasn't been able to put his finger on how exactly the research being conducted there benefits the U.S. nuclear weapons program. He wonders whether NIF is actually less about nuclear physics - and more about keeping nuclear physicists employed.

"NIF isn't truly about energy," Seife writes in his book. "It is not about keeping our stockpile safe, at least not directly. It is about keeping the United States' weapons community going in the absence of nuclear tests."

Is NIF on the right track for nuclear fusion? Is the promise of nearly limitless energy worth the billions of dollars being spent on fusion research? Or is fusion research really a matter of national security rather than energy production? Feel free to weigh in with your comments below.


Source: http://cosmiclog.msnbc.msn.com/archi...8/2187974.aspx
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Posted 2010-01-30, 08:38 PM in reply to Knight Sir Rick's post "Is fusion success in sight?"
That's some impressive stuff. Thanks for the update!
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Posted 2010-01-31, 07:17 PM in reply to Knight Sir Rick's post "Is fusion success in sight?"
This is the answer
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Posted 2010-01-31, 10:45 PM in reply to S2 AM's post starting "This is the answer"
No, the last 30 hours of Persona 3: FES is "The Answer". This is just Science.
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Posted 2010-01-31, 11:33 PM in reply to Knight Sir Rick's post "Is fusion success in sight?"
If you read how the facility actually works, it's pretty crazy. They basicly bounce a beam of light back and forth in a chamber, and somehow these energized plates in the beam path increase the energy of the beam.
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Posted 2010-02-01, 04:37 PM in reply to WetWired's post starting "If you read how the facility actually..."
So how do they get it to not explode?
Skurai
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Posted 2010-02-01, 09:08 PM in reply to Skurai's post starting "So how do they get it to not explode?"
The reflectors are probably very efficient, and I'm sure there are cooling mechanisms in place.
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Posted 2010-02-01, 09:59 PM in reply to WetWired's post starting "The reflectors are probably very..."
So, what exactly do they plan to do when it's all said and done? Nuclear War Heads and New World Order?
They better wait for me to get President first.
Skurai
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Posted 2010-02-02, 07:01 AM in reply to Skurai's post starting "So, what exactly do they plan to do..."
Fusion power is the goal, though the NIF will never be a power plant
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Posted 2010-02-02, 11:45 AM in reply to WetWired's post starting "Fusion power is the goal, though the..."
Well, whatever. As long as prices aren't high, and I can still play my gameboy, it's all good. Hopefully if this works out, people will stop complaining about using all the oil (and then going and using it).
Skurai
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Posted 2010-02-02, 11:47 AM in reply to Skurai's post starting "Well, whatever. As long as prices..."
if you can creat a smaller version of this you could power cars and the whatnot
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Posted 2010-02-02, 11:48 AM in reply to jamer123's post starting "if you can creat a smaller version of..."
Speaking of stuff that's awesome, has anyone ever heard the whole "Going to the moon/mars" thing? What's the look on that, at the moment? Is it in he recycle bin yet?
Skurai
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Posted 2010-02-12, 10:43 PM in reply to jamer123's post starting "if you can creat a smaller version of..."
Too bad we can't create a smaller version of you, so I can flush you down the toilet and be rid of your annoying tidbits.
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Posted 2010-02-13, 11:31 PM in reply to Snake's post starting "Too bad we can't create a smaller..."
snake will you just shut the fuck up .... your worse then 2 of skurai
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Posted 2010-02-13, 11:59 PM in reply to jamer123's post starting "snake will you just shut the fuck up ..."
Hey, settle down young'n. Don't get your panties in a bunch and piddle on yourself. Besides, you aren't worth my time. Way to show you're "The king of the flame forum," or whatever you call yourself. Like I said before, keep trying.
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Posted 2010-02-28, 03:49 PM in reply to Snake's post starting "Hey, settle down young'n. Don't get..."
Well I don't believe this is the flame forum so both of you stfu.
Skurai, as for the moon/mars thing. I heard they're pretty much giving up the idea of settling on either one at the moment, but I think it's a good thing because then we can focus on more important things like actually figuring out how to live in space first. Honestly, I think it'd be better to just create a space station with artificial gravity (by spinning the station) and just working on advancing that. We should sorta create a city in space and then send that city to help settle other planets/moons.
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