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"NIF has not yet achieved ignition"
December 11, 2012 9:56 PM   Subscribe

A plan submitted to congress sets a new course for the National Ignition Facility at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California. "If the National Ignition Facility does not achieve ignition by the end of fiscal year 2012 using a cryogenically layered deuterium and tritium target that produces a neutron yield with a gain greater than 1, the Committee directs NNSA to submit a report (PDF) by November 30, 2012 that (1) explains the scientific and technical barriers to achieving ignition, (2) the steps NNSA will take to achieve ignition with a revised schedule, and (3) the impact on the stockpile stweardship program."

"Over the subsequent two years of experimentation, the NIF laser has performed reliably and with great precision executed thirty-seven cryogenic implosion experiments. Power and energy have exceeded initial design specifications. Target quality is superb, and diagnostics have been developed that are returning experimental data of unprecedented quality. The quality of implosions improved substantially since the initial experiments, but the neutron yield remains a factor of three to ten less than required to initiate alpha heating and a propagating burn. The fuel is compressing to one-half the pressure that predictions would require for ignition"
posted by FuturisticDragon (18 comments total) 4 users marked this as a favorite

 
Seems reasonable to me. Fusion has been coming Real Soon Now for my whole life, and I'm retired. There comes a point where you have to ask whether they're chasing will-o-the-wisps.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 10:01 PM on December 11, 2012


I'm actually kinda impressed that they're within an order of magnitude of where they need to be.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 10:20 PM on December 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


They just need another 20 years.
posted by Artw at 10:32 PM on December 11, 2012


*sigh* y'know, if they had just invested all that time and money on developing thorium plants (as opposed to current uranium models) we'd not only have guaranteed, safe, clean power for a few millenia, but we'd probably be most of the way to ignition, to boot...

then again, rotation could very well be a crucial element to achieving fusion (ever heard of a star that doesn't rotate?) necessitating spinning the god-awful-huge fusion machine...or any number of other insane obstacles...maybe it IS time to put a pin in fusion for a while and look at investing that effort into things we know that work :/
posted by sexyrobot at 10:55 PM on December 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


Holraums are silly: the logistics of it doesn't make sense, unless you realize that NIF is a tool to keep pertinent nuclear scientists employed, and to train new ones. That's actually quite important.
posted by curuinor at 12:30 AM on December 12, 2012 [5 favorites]


They just need another 20 years.

Really? Did I miss a breakthrough?
posted by biffa at 2:02 AM on December 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


I am a physicist, but I'm not a nuclear one.

But the concept of the NIF has never made sense to me. I fail to see how it would scale to actual economic power generation.

As a pure research facility, it's great, we've learned a lot, but is there more to be learned through this approach?
posted by Homemade Interossiter at 2:07 AM on December 12, 2012


On the one hand, I like the government holding programs accountable. On the other hand, why is it only the relatively cheap science programs they do this with? No accountability for the War on Drugs, Homeland Security, hundreds of DoD programs, etc.
posted by DU at 4:04 AM on December 12, 2012 [14 favorites]


This report is being provided to the following Members of Congress:
  • ...
  • The Honorable Thad Cochran Ranking Member, Senate Committee on Appropriations
  • ...
Thad Cochran once attempted to pass a law to override the Patent Office so as to give a patent out to a guy who had convinced Cochran that he had invented a perpetual motion machine*. Seriously.

I'm sure Thad Cochran will be great at deciding on our fusion policy.

*: Senate support for Cochran's proposal died when John Glenn got a turn at questioning, and asked the inventor what lab he would like to measure the input and output levels of his device. The inventor responded that performing such measurements would be an insult to science.
posted by Flunkie at 5:08 AM on December 12, 2012 [13 favorites]


But the concept of the NIF has never made sense to me. I fail to see how it would scale to actual economic power generation.

It was never supposed to; NIF is primarily about weapons research. They've always been pretty open about this; it's at the top of their missions statement.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 5:48 AM on December 12, 2012


Thad Cochran once attempted to pass a law to override the Patent Office so as to give a patent out to a guy who had convinced Cochran that he had invented a perpetual motion machine*. Seriously.

But on the plus side, mitigating the shame he has brought on his family name will be a key motivator for his great, great grandson Zefram to go into warp theory.
posted by biffa at 7:11 AM on December 12, 2012 [4 favorites]


... if they had just invested all that time and money on developing thorium plants (as opposed to current uranium models)...

But then they would have had to build separate plants for creating nuclear weapons.
posted by ceribus peribus at 7:12 AM on December 12, 2012 [3 favorites]


If you look at it from the perspective of studies of how to make really, really big lasers, and finding out what they do when you shoot them at stuff, then NIF makes perfect sense. It's really nifty work from a high-energy physics point of view, and producing amazing precision high-power lasers.

Fusion research that seems much more likely to pay off for civilian uses is being done by ITER (wiki) in France, but that project too seems to be in the weeds.
posted by bonehead at 7:17 AM on December 12, 2012


I and one other Mefite went on a tour of the NIF at LLNL a few years back. On the bus into the facility, the buffest, largest security guy got on and checked each of our ids. Carefully. I may have thought "this is not the best moment to tell a joke."

Inside, they showed us three research areas: the NIF itself, a carbon-dating lab that looked like Real Science (as in, it wasn't a glittery showpiece and had ad-hoc wires from Thing A to Thing B and lab-y stuff and Dilbert cartoons), and an atmospheric effects prediction lab (this one was a showpiece).

It was one of the World Cup Days, and behind a curtain I saw a room with the lab people watching the game, I think on a big overhead IT nerve center screen. Yay nerds!

Overall, I liked the place. But the supposed nuclear storage area with the anti-Bond Villain security measures was cool, too. I thought it would make great sense, putting up all these security measures right here, with a giant sign saying "here's the plutonium," and then actually storing the stuff in a Rubbermaid container about 100' away.
posted by zippy at 7:21 AM on December 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


Yeah, there are a bunch of fusion experiments of various promise ongoing around the world. I've always felt the NIF method to be among the least viable, although I'm not an expert by any means. There was a BBC Horizon episode in which Brian Cox toured several of these experiments, which was a lot of fun if you like to gawp at beautiful machines.
posted by gilrain at 7:25 AM on December 12, 2012


then again, rotation could very well be a crucial element to achieving fusion (ever heard of a star that doesn't rotate?) necessitating spinning the god-awful-huge fusion machine

We've been able to create high-yield fusion reactions for over 50 years. No spinning is required.

To doubly clarify what ROU_Xenophobe has already pointed out, the NIF is not an energy generation project. It is a stockpile maintenance project. We need to understand fusion reactions in great detail because our massive stockpile of world-killing superweapons relies on fusion.
posted by mr_roboto at 12:03 PM on December 12, 2012


gilrain writes "I've always felt the NIF method to be among the least viable, although I'm not an expert by any means."

And of course you never can tell when pure research is going to uncover something unexpected or even unrelated to your research goal.
posted by Mitheral at 4:04 PM on December 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


Yeah, ITER seems much more reasonable. Tokamaks actually have a viable design path to power generation plants. Plus, the name is much better. Toroidal'naya kamera s magnitnymi katushkami indeed!
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 11:54 PM on December 12, 2012


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