A Short Fuse For Fusion As Ignition Misses Deadline
By Amy Standen
The National Ignition Facility in Livermore, Calif., has been called a modern-day moonshot, a project of “revolutionary science,” and “the mother of all boondoggles.”
NIF, as it’s called, is a $5 billion, taxpayer-funded superlaser project whose goal is to create nuclear fusion — basically a tiny star inside a laboratory. But so far, that hasn’t happened.
At first glance, NIF sounds like something out of a comic book from the 1950s. But NIF director Ed Moses disagrees slightly, saying in 2008: “I think we’re working on something far more far out, and far cooler than anything in science fiction or fantasy.”
The idea behind NIF is to direct a laser the size of a football field — 192 lasers, actually — at one tiny capsule the size of a peppercorn filled with hydrogen. It would create degrees of heat and pressure never before achieved in a lab.
“We will raise the temperature of the target to a hundred million degrees,” Moses said. “That’s higher temperature and more pressure than exists at the center of our sun.”
That’s so hot that the hydrogen atoms would enter into a state of controlled nuclear fusion. This is not nuclear fission, where energy is generated by splitting atoms — that happens every day in nuclear power plants. It’s the opposite — fusion — smashing them together.
And it’s important to realize this concept, controlled nuclear fusion, is one of the most fabled dreams in science, something that has eluded generations of physicists.
So when NIF opened, there was a lot of excitement.
“I cannot wait for this to become a reality here,” said California’s then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who was at NIF’s dedication in 2009. George Miller, then the head of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, where NIF is based, was there too. Everyone seemed to believe ignition — that moment the fusion chain reaction begins — was right around the corner.
“I think we will get ignition,” Miller said. “I think we’ll get ignition relatively shortly after we turn the facility on.”
Now, fast forward 3 1/2 years.
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