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Fusion Breakeven Very Close at National Ignition Facility

Researchers at the National Ignition Facility (NIF) say they have met many of the demanding challenges leading up to achieving the highly stable, precisely directed implosion required for fusion ignition.  The NIF, engaged in a collaborative project led by the Department of Energy’s Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, reports that there is at least one significant obstacle to overcome.

It’s the same matter that bedevils everyone else, crushing the fuel is like squeezing a balloon in one’s fist, a lot of the fuel or balloon squishes out of the lower and less restrained areas.

National Ignition Facility Laser Reamplifier.
National Ignition Facility Laser Reamplifier.

The dream of igniting (another way to say ‘breakeven’) a self-sustained fusion reaction with high yields of energy is a feat likened to creating a miniature star on Earth.  The NIF project is a multi-institutional effort including partners from the University of Rochester’s Laboratory for Laser Energetics, General Atomics, Los Alamos National Laboratory, Sandia National Laboratory, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Related article: Following Rossi’s E-Cat, Another Cold Fusion Device Attracts Commercial Interest

In what must be a dreadful sense of confusion the group was scooped by the mass media a few weeks ago with a less than stellar report that cast much doubt on their success.  Oddly the groups research report, received back in March was accepted in June after the peer review and was published back at the end of July in the journal Physics of Plasma.  The press release only came out this past Monday.  Wow, that’s months late.  Anyway, the progress is much better than the wire service writer and the assorted mass media stories made the progress out to be.

To reach ignition (defined as the point at which the fusion reaction produces more energy than is needed to initiate it), the NIF focuses 192 laser beams simultaneously in billionth-of-a-second pulses inside a cryogenically cooled hohlraum (from the German word for “hollow room”), a hollow cylinder the size of a pencil eraser. Within the hohlraum is a ball-bearing-size capsule containing two hydrogen isotopes, deuterium and tritium (D-T). The unified lasers deliver 1.8 megajoules of energy and 500 terawatts of power – 1,000 times more than the United States uses at any one moment – to the hohlraum creating an “X-ray oven” which implodes the D-T capsule to temperatures and pressures similar to those found at the center of the sun.

John Edwards, NIF associate director for inertial confinement fusion and high-energy-density science explains, “What we want to do is use the X-rays to blast away the outer layer of the capsule in a very controlled manner, so that the D-T pellet is compressed to just the right conditions to initiate the fusion reaction. In our new review article, we report that the NIF has met many of the requirements believed necessary to achieve ignition – sufficient X-ray intensity in the hohlraum, accurate energy delivery to the target and desired levels of compression – but that at least one major hurdle remains to be overcome, the premature breaking apart of the capsule.”

In the article, Edwards and his colleagues discuss how they are using diagnostic tools developed at NIF to determine likely causes for the problem. “In some ignition tests, we measured the scattering of neutrons released and found different strength signals at different spots around the D-T capsule,” Edwards said. “This indicates that the shell’s surface is not uniformly smooth and that in some places, it’s thinner and weaker than in others. In other tests, the spectrum of X-rays emitted indicated that the D-T fuel and capsule were mixing too much – the results of hydrodynamic instability – and that can quench the ignition process.”

Related article: A Precocious Dawn for the ITER Project?

There’s quite a lot to examine and improve.  The lasers have to go off exactly at the right time, focused precisely correctly on a target so uniformly built that the fuel inside gets compressed and heated properly.  That’s the simplest explanation of something that involves a huge amount of energy on a wee bit of material in a tiny moment.

Edwards said that the team is concentrating its efforts on NIF to define the exact nature of the instability and use the knowledge gained to design an improved, sturdier capsule. Achieving that milestone, he said, should clear the path for further advances toward laboratory ignition.

That may be the last step to a breakeven event.  So far humans have only managed fusion breakeven inside explosions.  Whoever gets it done first will prove lots of ideas might be possible for ways to burn fusion fuel beyond breakeven.  Then the engineering race will get underway.

It’s going to happen.  Somewhere and maybe soon.

By. Brian Westenhaus

Source: http://newenergyandfuel.com/http:/newenergyandfuel/com/2013/09/25/close-to-a-fusion-breakeven-breakthrough/

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Leave a comment
  • Matt Musson on October 04 2013 said:
    While they may be saying that breakeven is close they are actually comparing apples to oranges. Electricity is going in and heat is coming out. There would be significant losses in a system that tried to turn that heat into electricity.
  • Eddie Devere on October 17 2013 said:
    There was no milestone at NIF last month.
    They put in 1.8 MJ in photons and only got 14 keV in neutrons.
    Inertial fusion is still three to four orders of magnitude away from engineering feasibility.
    For more info, see my most recent post on this topic.

    Magnetically-confined fusion plasma is at least close to the break even point, as far as electricity consumed to contain and heat the plasma compared with the neutrons energy released from the plasma. ITER may (or may not) reach the break even point, depending on how it is defined and depending on whether they find new instabilities in fusion-heated plasmas.
  • Frank Leister on November 08 2013 said:
    Come on guys get your act together, ITER is going to save our planet from global warming pollution or having to go back to pre industrial living.
    What more promising and important thing could there be than commercialisation of fusion energy. Please stay focused!

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