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November 28, 2011 2:31 PM   Subscribe

The National Ignition Facility (and fusion power) has been in the news lately. (pdf)

In construction since 1997 (wiki) and coming in at slightly more than four times it's original budget, the NIF has always been ambitious. Their goal is to create through small fusion reactions that produce more energy than they consume, opening the door to near unlimited energy. To do this (pdf), 192 lasers are used to heat a tiny target containing a mix of deuterium and tritium, compressing whole and leading to a massive explosion. The heat given off is used indirectly to boil water and power turbines, in theory giving back more energy than was expended in a single burst.

While the first attempt at creating such a reaction is still a year or so off, the facility was opened in a lovely dedication ceremony in May 2009, with the staff of "The Big Picture" taking a tour in October, 2010. Ironically, early funding for the NIF has come from the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), not the Department of Energy. While the DOE is involved in fusion research, most of their attention has been focused on magnetics and funding the construction of ITER in France, expected to be operational in 2019 (wiki).

Looking forward, the NIF is already planning on commercial applications, designing the Laser Inertial Fusion Energy (LIFE) pilot plant for producing 400MW of power at a price of approximately 12c/kWh. LIFE is expected to be operational in 12 years, and has been holding steady at that date for the past three years.

If you'd like, you can also take a virtual tour of the facility.

(previously)
posted by Orange Pamplemousse (38 comments total) 16 users marked this as a favorite

 
I seem to recall my physics professor saying that if a technology is 'five years away', it's at least ten years away, and if it's ten years away it'll never happen. This was in my undergrad physics class, a little over ten years ago, when we were discussing an article about how nuclear fusion was 'ten years away.'
posted by mullingitover at 2:52 PM on November 28, 2011 [6 favorites]


This is a great, non-military use of taxpayer money. I hope they make progress before the next round of austerity cuts.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 2:54 PM on November 28, 2011 [2 favorites]


Using lasers to create an enormous explosion is non-military?
posted by Holy Zarquon's Singing Fish at 2:54 PM on November 28, 2011 [1 favorite]


Maybe they plan to make really complicated steam bombs; I suppose it is possible.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 2:57 PM on November 28, 2011


mullingitover, that was my joke as well. Especially with alternate energy, when it sometimes seems like a means of prolonging the use of fossil fuels.

Ie. Why worry about burning gas now? Fusion/Fuel Cells/Solar's only twenty years away, and then we'll be rolling in energy!

Thankfully, the clock does seem to be ticking down, albeit slowly.
posted by Orange Pamplemousse at 3:00 PM on November 28, 2011


Sure, but it's no Thorium.
posted by lumpenprole at 3:02 PM on November 28, 2011 [3 favorites]


According to their own website one of the main reasons for this to exist is military.

NIF is an essential component of the U.S. stockpile assessment and certification strategy. NIF is crucial to the Stockpile Stewardship Program because it is the only facility that can create the conditions of extreme temperature and pressure—conditions that exist only in stars or in thermonuclear reactions—that are relevant to understanding the operation of our modern nuclear weapons. In addition, NIF is the only facility that can create fusion ignition and thermonuclear burn in the laboratory.
posted by teppic at 3:05 PM on November 28, 2011 [1 favorite]


mullingitover: I usually say 50 years when describing my research. I hope to be retired by the time people get start to look at their watches and ask pointed questions.
posted by springload at 3:08 PM on November 28, 2011 [2 favorites]


So, this is the remix to Ignition?
posted by drjimmy11 at 3:12 PM on November 28, 2011 [9 favorites]


Maybe they plan to make really complicated steam bombs; I suppose it is possible.

There's a reason a giant laser complex designed to produce a fusion reaction is housed at a nuclear weapons lab, and why the NNSA was funding it, and why it was allowed to go over budget by so much.
posted by dirigibleman at 3:22 PM on November 28, 2011 [1 favorite]


As I understand it, one of the major reasons the NIF exists is to maintain an active population of nuclear scientists in the United States. In other words, the project itself is arguably secondary to the goal of maintaining technical expertise for strategic reasons.
posted by dephlogisticated at 3:32 PM on November 28, 2011


oh BP, no, this is definitely military in nature. That's what NIF does. I went to visit the facility for some reason back when I was a grad student, and boy was it some kind of bureaucratic mess to even get access. Besides, even if they do get more energy out than they put in, it's not sustainable (they way you'd hope for a tokamak or other fusion reactor to be). If you believe in Big Fusion, then you should be checking out ITER. (or, well, that was true 10 years ago, last time I paid attention).

They present it as being innocuous, but Livermore does military research. NIF is there for a reason.
posted by nat at 3:35 PM on November 28, 2011


This is a great, non-military use of taxpayer money. I hope they make progress before the next round of austerity cuts.

As others have pointed out, one of the other primary functions of NIF is to "assure nuclear stockpile functionality" or some other happy horseshit newspeak. There's a reason why NIF is at Lawrence-Livermore, because it also happens to make a handy nuclear thermonuclear fusion warhead simulator that allows them to run nuclear weapons tests and experiments outside of computer simulation, yet without violating the comprehensive test ban treaty.

Supposedly they're only doing experiments that - again, paraphrased newspeak - "assure continued functionality of our existing stockpiles of nuclear weapons" since they can't just go nuking atolls in the South Pacific to see if they still work anymore, but I would bet that the research and testing secretly extends beyond that into what would be considered new or exploratory weapons development.

But, hey, giant frickin' laser beams.

Also, while the Inertial Confinement model for a working fusion reactor may be feasible, and may be considerably safer than other models - I have serious doubts it will be functional as a continuous power source any time soon. The placement and alignment of the hohlraum has to be exceedingly precise. So does the alignment, shape, quality and focus of the lasers.

Considering one of the proposals is to drop a carefully timed stream of targets into the ignition chamber and then ignite them while they're in mid-air and falling, that's a lot of extreme precision in multiple domains all working together.
posted by loquacious at 3:37 PM on November 28, 2011 [3 favorites]


There's a reason a giant laser complex designed to produce a fusion reaction is housed at a nuclear weapons lab

Maybe I'm just naïve and buying what the Science article is selling, but aren't they using the lasers to generate a fusion reaction to heat up water and generate electricity? Vaporizing people doesn't seem to be the primary goal, here, even if the data has some applications to weapons simulation research. I've seen other research projects get military or DoD funding that doesn't necessarily involve killing people. Perhaps getting the United States off foreign energy sources is a national security priority, as much as making new forms of weaponry?
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 3:47 PM on November 28, 2011


There's a reason a giant laser complex designed to produce a fusion reaction is housed at a nuclear weapons lab

The University of Rochester's Laboratory for Laser Energetics was the previous site for laser-based fusion and it's definitely not a weapons lab.

I have been in the LLE numerous times. This isn't something like a Star Trek phaser beam, the duration is extremely short and requires them to store electrical power in an enormous bank of capacitors in the basement prior to a "shoot" because the local power grid lacks the capability. Using this as a weapon seems impractical, at least at present.
posted by tommasz at 3:58 PM on November 28, 2011 [1 favorite]


Using lasers to create an enormous explosion is non-military?

The Internet was developed and funded by DARPA, "an agency of the United States Department of Defense responsible for the development of new technology for use by the military." Some things lead to other things. As the FPP says "the NIF is already planning on commercial applications".
posted by stbalbach at 3:58 PM on November 28, 2011 [1 favorite]


Maybe I'm just naïve and buying what the Science article is selling, but aren't they using the lasers to generate a fusion reaction to heat up water and generate electricity?

Not yet they aren't. They won't be producing working steam with the NIF, ever. It's not designed to be a power plant. It's primarily designed to gather data on intertial confinement fusion reactions.

Another detail to point out is that the "break even point" that they're talking about with NIF isn't actually more power out than in, it's simply more power out than the sum of the laser energy on the target. This break even point doesn't yet include the actual input power required to generate, pump, shape and filter the lasers. Much less the actual energy costs to build, deploy and maintain something even more complicated than the NIF - all while using a fuel that's so rare that they have to intentionally breed it in the shielding of the reactor.

I have serious doubts that this system will ever break even when every erg is accounted for.

Meanwhile, photovoltaic solar is right here and now, dropping in price per watt rapidly and immediately deployable. The amount of square footage to power the entire planet isn't that much. We could actually do that.

We probably could have afforded it and got it done if we "declared war" on fossil fuels and put the money and manpower from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars into solar, and in less time then the wars are lasting.

The Internet was developed and funded by DARPA, "an agency of the United States Department of Defense responsible for the development of new technology for use by the military."

Sure, but on the other hand the internet has sure made it easy to spy on everyone, including civilians. As awesome as the internet is and has been, it's also currently just a few flipped switches and bad laws away from being a de facto telescreen as found in 1984.
posted by loquacious at 4:18 PM on November 28, 2011 [3 favorites]


Despite the official science selling point being energy research, I never once heard a physicist outside the NIF itself describe it as anything other than weapons research. The technology just isn't reasonable with hohlraums to generate continuous power, as loquacious mentioned. If that were the goal, the money spent on this would be a waste given other possible technologies, like at ITER. But it also isn't a laser weapon facility (unless you figure out how to get the enemy into a chamber in the middle of a very secure area), it's just a handy way to explore fusion conditions in a controlled fashion. I have no exposure to that type of work, so I cant speculate in an informed way about what specifically they want to test, but it is clearly a good basic setup for experiments one would want to do relating to thermonuclear bombs.
posted by Schismatic at 4:22 PM on November 28, 2011


NNSA is part of DOE.

NIF is kind of silly...We decided to stop doing nuclear testing, so we put all the money that would have gone to nuclear testing into other nuclear weapons research. Then we decided the project would do double duty as our country's entry into the fusion power race. This doesn't really make sense, since laser ignition is a terrible way to make electricity, and all the results from the research are super-duper-classified so they're unlikely to help out any civilian researchers.

But DOE has managed to keep politicians -- and plenty of reporters -- completely confused about whether it's a military or civilian project, presumably so they can keep the funding going.
posted by miyabo at 4:31 PM on November 28, 2011


Maybe I'm just naïve and buying what the Science article is selling, but aren't they using the lasers to generate a fusion reaction to heat up water and generate electricity?

They're using lasers to generate fusion reactions to study the physical details of nuclear fusion. The US military is interested in nuclear fusion because it has about 8,500 fusion reactors stored in various facilities across the United States and in submarines under the surfaces of the various oceans.

These 8,500 fusion reactors, which the US military has stored and ready for deployment, are not for the purpose of generating energy.
posted by mr_roboto at 4:36 PM on November 28, 2011 [3 favorites]


mr_roboto: do you mean fission?
posted by Mach5 at 4:47 PM on November 28, 2011


Or fusion bombs? There's a pretty serious difference between an H bomb and a fusion reactor.
posted by auto-correct at 4:49 PM on November 28, 2011


He is using "fusion reactor" as an ironic term for "hydrogen bomb."
posted by miyabo at 4:50 PM on November 28, 2011


The Internet was developed and funded by DARPA, "an agency of the United States Department of Defense responsible for the development of new technology for use by the military."

Sure, but on the other hand the internet has sure made it easy to spy on everyone, including civilians. As awesome as the internet is and has been, it's also currently just a few flipped switches and bad laws away from being a de facto telescreen as found in 1984.
I find the implication that the internet was developed as a propaganda device (and you didn't say that, but you certainly nodded suggestively in that direction) far-fetched. I think the military benefits of having a networked computer system (available for the usage at military bases, for example) is quite clear, without resorting to the borderline conspiracy-theory that it was developed to be deployed as a propaganda network.

Similarly (since the internet was really a tangent that we were using as an analogy), I find it far-fetched that the reason DARPA is pursuing this is because they hope to weaponize it. DARPA is known for researching waaay far-out there futuristic technology that could have some vague military implication later on. For example, it's quite clear that having a vast supply of cheap power would be an enormous strategic benefit to whichever country posessed it. Again, this sidesteps the more conspiracy-theory explanation that you posed.

I don't disagree or object to anything you said about solar power (I haven't researched the facts and figures myself, but I agree with the theme of your argument.)
posted by !Jim at 5:07 PM on November 28, 2011 [1 favorite]


Similarly (since the internet was really a tangent that we were using as an analogy), I find it far-fetched that the reason DARPA is pursuing this is because they hope to weaponize it.

DARPA is not pursing this (the NIF). The NIF is a DOE project, undertaken at one of the DOE laboratories (Lawrence Livermore). One of the primary missions of the DOE is to maintain the integrity of the United States' nuclear weapons stockpile; this is the mission they are pursuing with the NIF.
posted by mr_roboto at 5:25 PM on November 28, 2011


I find the implication that the internet was developed as a propaganda device (and you didn't say that, but you certainly nodded suggestively in that direction) far-fetched. I think the military benefits of having a networked computer system (available for the usage at military bases, for example) is quite clear, without resorting to the borderline conspiracy-theory that it was developed to be deployed as a propaganda network.

I wasn't suggesting it was a propaganda network but a surveillance network. (They already had a nice propaganda network. It's called television.)

The internet is by and large the most accurate, most easily targeted and most dangerous surveillance tool ever created by humankind. And you can bet it's being used for it right now, and most people happily volunteer almost all of their personal information. Your location is easily tracked thanks to smartphones. Not even your personal "offline" verbal conversations are secure since phones have been repeatedly used as eavesdropping devices with and without a warrant.

Doubt me? Make a credible threat on a major government official's life online and see how long it takes for someone to come knocking for at least a rather intense interview.

I don't think anyone sane would be willing to try that experiment, at least not without a legal defense plan and trying to make some kind of point about the current state of the art for surveillance practices and technology.

Apologies for the cynical de-rail, but just because DARPA invented the internet, that doesn't mean that the internet is harmless nor that DARPA is capable of good works just because the internet is kind of good, so far.

Anyway, as pointed out above the NIF is a DoE funded project. It's heavily militarized. It's not ever going to be a viable electricity generation scheme. It wasn't ever really intended to be such a thing. There's double-speak going on to sell it for funding to both warmongers and peace activists, which is why it was allowed to run so far over budget with no promises of commercially available applications.

Solar will get there first. Solar won't be "too cheap to meter" because there's no such thing, but solar is pretty damn harmless compared to nuclear reactors whether they're relatively "clean" fusion or not.

Solar has a hidden side benefit, too. Increased planetary albedo. Not only would we be burning less carbon, but the increased reflectivity could help keep the planet cooler.

As for the NIF, the main non-military benefit will probably be in optics, crystal-growing technologies and technical advancements in laser power and quality. It's extremely unlikely that it will ever become a suitable, cost-effective power generation scheme.
posted by loquacious at 5:59 PM on November 28, 2011 [1 favorite]


These 8,500 fusion reactors, which the US military has stored and ready for deployment, are not for the purpose of generating energy.

I can assure you they are most certainly for generating energy, on the order of E=mc^2.
posted by kcds at 6:28 PM on November 28, 2011 [5 favorites]


As I understand it, one of the major reasons the NIF exists is to maintain an active population of nuclear scientists in the United States. In other words, the project itself is arguably secondary to the goal of maintaining technical expertise for strategic reasons.

That's been the case for all nuclear research from the beginning, and the space program too.

Still, we did get velcro out of the space program, so I guess we can dream :)
posted by Chuckles at 6:46 PM on November 28, 2011


I love Metafilter so much. I researched NIF for about three months and within five or ten posts, I'm reading what it took me AGES to Figure out. NIF is about 3 things:

1. Maintaining technical ability at Livermore so that, when we start testing and building nukes again, Livermore will have in-house expertise in order to crush their mortal enemy, Los Alamos.

2. Verifying that certain aspects of Livermore's computer model of nuclear explosions are correct.

3. ...oh yeah, getting ignition (a 1:1 relationship of energy in to energy out). The amount of energy, by the way, is roughly equal to the caloric content of a doughnut.

It's not about sustainable energy. Never was, never will be. Never could be.
posted by Zerowensboring at 6:47 PM on November 28, 2011


I wasn't suggesting it was a propaganda network but a surveillance network. (They already had a nice propaganda network. It's called television.)
I wasn't arguing that the internet can't be used as a surveillance device (well, propaganda device, but same difference), but rather that it wasn't developed as a propaganda device. I firmly believe that the internet came out of research into creating a network of computers for information-sharing purposes, not that it was a dark government plot to embed a surveillance network in people's homes.

I think you and I will have to agree to disagree on this one, I just don't see how we could find any common ground.
posted by !Jim at 7:06 PM on November 28, 2011


Okay, as someone who actually does high energy laser shock compression experiments, I feel the need to participate in this discussion. Basically, there are a whole bunch of reasons that make NIF a potential source of interesting science, and yes, some of them are weapons related, some of them are fusion related, and some of them are just fundamental physics. Matter does crazy shit at those pressures and temperatures, and really the only way to get there (at the moment) is NIF/other high energy laser facilities.
Essentially, what I am trying to say is that you can't just negate the scientific importance of NIF by pointing out that the odds of it working in one of the publicized categories is astronomically low, that isn't how science works.
(And honestly, I have a whole independent rant about the current status of NIF stuff, so I can see where people are coming from, but there are a whole bunch of really smart people who have put a ton of work into NIF, and I think the somewhat arrogant dismissal of the scientific value of NIF seen in a couple posts is kind of hilarious...)
posted by gwyhir at 7:21 PM on November 28, 2011 [3 favorites]


You'd have to explain how the government was utterly oblivious of the Internet for the first 20 years of its existence... remember ISDN and the Clipper Chip?
posted by miyabo at 7:24 PM on November 28, 2011


Gah, I hope you don't think I was one of the ones dismissing NIF's science, gwyhir. But I think claiming it is entirely peaceful in nature is naive to the point of being dangerous.
posted by nat at 10:03 PM on November 28, 2011


Essentially, what I am trying to say is that you can't just negate the scientific importance of NIF by pointing out that the odds of it working in one of the publicized categories is astronomically low, that isn't how science works.

As someone who at one time worked on a project involving laser stuff (astrophysical jets), I agree. My only assertion is that NIF has been built and only really is allowed to exist because of its nuclear weapons applications.
posted by dirigibleman at 11:24 PM on November 28, 2011


Solar will continue to fall in price until Apple takes it over. Then solar units will be easy to use, stylish, and twice as expensive as any other power source.
posted by happyroach at 12:47 AM on November 29, 2011


... but actually work without consulting the purple book, and be happily replaced in the event of failure.
posted by flaterik at 1:08 AM on November 29, 2011


Anyway, we need the fusion research so we can eventually get the fusion powered rockets. We can't have my Tom Corbett future without 'em. Sadly, that's looking to be at least a century away. Fortunately, I'm not planning to go anywhere.
posted by happyroach at 7:06 AM on November 29, 2011


I was so jazzed after watching Bussard's polywell Google talk. I couldn't help feeling like fusion would be an awesome area to work and really change the world! I found this guys blog about building his own fusion reactor crazy and inspiring too.

I'm a computer nerd (software, databases, some hardware), so while I won't be grokking the physics, I think I could be helpful/useful.

Not really excited about working for government/military, though I suppose that's unavoidable with fusion at this point.

My current job is a great company, smart and driven coworkers, excellent pay. But I'm losing the passion. It's just not a "world changer" like fusion might be.

Of course, loquacious may have the better answer with solar. Perhaps not as sexy as giant-frickin-lazers/shiny-electromagnets, but saving the world is saving the world. Just scratching my head a bit trying to figure out how/where to get involved...
posted by sarah_pdx at 5:18 PM on December 24, 2011


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