Laser Nuclear Fusion in a few months
June 17, 2010 11:20 PM   Subscribe

The "Laser Inertial Fusion Engine" (LIFE) is being developed at the National Ignition Facility. Stewart Brand blogs about its potential here and this video (.mov 128MB) is stunning. How LIFE works. Successful early test shots suggest that the NIF will achieve first nuclear fusion ignition within the next few months (+10 years to commercial).
posted by stbalbach (44 comments total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
recommend right-click save on the .mov
posted by stbalbach at 11:21 PM on June 17, 2010

Science wins.

(crosses fingers)
posted by polymodus at 11:44 PM on June 17, 2010

Mind blown. That movie was awesome.
posted by Skygazer at 12:01 AM on June 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

It should be 20 years to commercial. Always 20 years. There are traditions!
posted by Artw at 12:16 AM on June 18, 2010 [3 favorites]

From the article:

In addition, because of the very high fission product content, the waste is self-protecting for decades: its radiation flux is so great that any attempt at stealing it would be suicidal.

posted by dibblda at 12:41 AM on June 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

In addition, because of the very high fission product content, the waste is self-protecting for decades: its radiation flux is so great that any attempt at stealing it would be suicidal.

Translation: it's so nasty that someone trying to grab it and use it for a dirty bomb will die before they get far.
posted by zippy at 12:46 AM on June 18, 2010

Radiation. Yes, indeed. You hear the most outrageous lies about it. Half-baked goggle-box do-gooders telling everybody it's bad for you. Pernicious nonsense. Everybody could stand a hundred chest X-rays a year.
posted by Artw at 12:48 AM on June 18, 2010 [8 favorites]

10 years to commercial, 20 years until it's powering a fleet of autonomous, self replicating automatic shot-gun brandishing helicopterbots.
posted by From Bklyn at 12:59 AM on June 18, 2010 [4 favorites]

Wikipedia mentions 2050 as the most likely date for fusion energy plants, and mentions that only one of four steps necessary to achieve commercialisation is accomplished at this moment. Did something change radically? Are the experiments at the NIF more succesful than anticipated? Will it be easier to build than we expected? There's no real answer to this in the blog.

Also, I still don't understand how this stuff works. So you get a tiny - popcorn size - radioactive pellet to explode (?). Then what? Why doesn't this stuff melt and spill all over the floor? How can you capture the energy? Something about salt, it said, but I just can't visualise it, I'm afraid. If anybody can explain that part to me, I'd be grateful.
posted by NekulturnY at 12:59 AM on June 18, 2010

the only thing cooler than the phrase LASER INERTIAL FUSION ENGINE is the idea of a working at a place called the NATIONAL IGNITION FACILITY.


that's all
posted by Sebmojo at 1:35 AM on June 18, 2010 [5 favorites]

Less facetiously, yes this bit -

"At the end of the engine's lifetime, 39.6 MT of fission products are left. This remaining waste has such a low actinide content that it falls into DOE's lowest attractiveness category for nuclear proliferation.

In addition, because of the very high fission product content, the waste is self-protecting for decades: its radiation flux is so great that any attempt at stealing it would be suicidal."

Is that really saying that 40 million tons of lethally radioactive waste will be produced by the reactor over its lifetime?

But that its ok because the terrorists can't get it?

Because if so then that my friends is chutzpah. LASER INERTIAL FUSION chutzpah.
posted by Sebmojo at 1:40 AM on June 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

MT = Metric Tons Sebmojo.
posted by pharm at 3:25 AM on June 18, 2010

The practical applications are amazing.
posted by markkraft at 3:44 AM on June 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

they're called 'suicide bombers' for a reason.
posted by fourcheesemac at 4:00 AM on June 18, 2010

Those are some slooooooow lasers.
posted by scrowdid at 4:32 AM on June 18, 2010

10 years to commercial - absolutely no chance. The LIFE website says this depends on igniting targets at a rate of 10-15 per second, as compared to the current rate of one per eight hours. Even if you only consider the critical ignition stages, as detailed in the graphic here, it would take at least a few minutes to cycle between firings using the current technology. I would like to see an informed sceptic comment on the improvements required to capacitor, laser and control optics technology to allow firing rate to be improved 2 orders of magnitude while maintaining continuous operation for extended periods.
Then we get to the targets. A single facility with 80% uptime would consume around 2.5million targets in a year. The plant and process development required to make the targets manufacturable on this scale within ten years would be a massive project in it's own right, and that's before you even actually build the plant to make them.
The "How LIFE works" link says
With the appropriate research, development and engineering program, LIFE engines could begin to provide electricity to U.S. consumers within 20 years
which seems to me to be a little more reasonable, even if still on the optomistic side.
posted by Jakey at 4:41 AM on June 18, 2010 [2 favorites]

Did I say Optomism?...I think I just inadvertently coined a new word for the confident predictions of laser fusion boosters :)
posted by Jakey at 4:44 AM on June 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

When I saw that Brand managed to wedge in hydrogen to his writeup, I knew it was merely glinty-eyed white boy sci-fi energy porn.

Rule #0 of energy planning: if your future plans rely heavily on an energy source that doesn't work yet, maybe you should reconsider them.
posted by scruss at 5:15 AM on June 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

Ok, come on, Sebmojo! 39.6 metric tons of waste will fit under a desk! For a sufficiently large desk, of course.
posted by GenjiandProust at 5:41 AM on June 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

This is where I say pass on the purchase of a few F-22s or whatever and dump it into this type of research.
posted by Atreides at 5:54 AM on June 18, 2010

For eons, Man has sought an energy source whose catastrophic failure would be completely free of photogenic animals covered in oil. Sufficiently high radioactive flux ensures that the victims of any containment failure will be hideously deformed, moving viewer responses down spectrum from Awww-I-Want-To-Help to FOR-SWEET-MERCY'S-SAKE-KILL-IT-NOW. At present, significant energy has to be input to reach PR parity, but we're confident we could reach a self-sustaining public reaction by, oh, 2030.
posted by condour75 at 6:03 AM on June 18, 2010 [7 favorites]

There are a few things that bear mentioning -- things that Ed Moses never seems to discuss properly.

LIFE is really a fission plant, not a fusion one. The fusion element of LIFE is essentially a neutron source that powers fission reactions, which give you most of the power. Ed Moses always seems to play that down -- often failing to mention fission at all, as he did in his Maker Faire talk here, portraying it as a fusion power plant. Sure, the fission is in the literature, and he'll talk about it if you bring it up, but there's definitely an attempt to let the public think that LIFE is something that it ain't.

Also, for LIFE to work, they've got to abandon the core NIF technology of Nd-doped glass lasers, which can only fire a few times a day, moving to solid-state lasers that fire at 10-20 Hz. There's a lot of work to do on that front... it's doable, but it's not as if NIF gave a clear path to LIFE, as Moses and LLNL like to portray.

Another thing that they don't like to talk about with LIFE or NIF is shown more clearly in a slightly older version of a graphic from the "How LIFE works" article.

The laser is labeled as a 10-20 megawatt laser. The fusion power it produces (before hitting the fission blanket) is labeled as 350-500 megawatts. That's great... it's a gain (in the ballpark) of 25-35 -- you get 25 or 35 times more energy out than the 10-20 megawatts you put in -- as is so helpfully labeled on the diagram. Wonderful! Free energy for everyone!

Not so fast.

The diagram also says you're delivering 1.4 megajoules at 10-15 Hz... which means that your laser is putting 14-21 MW of power on the target.

Unless you have a 100% efficient laser, you can't consume 20 MW and put 20 MW of power on target! Indeed, NIF's lasers are less than 1% efficient, so if this were a NIF-class laser, you'd need ~2000 MW to get a fusion "yield" of 350-500 MW. Last I heard, the solid-state lasers that NIF is looking at -- which are not nearly as powerful as they need yet -- are about 7% efficient, so that's roughly energy breakeven before you hit the fission blanket, assuming that you keep the same efficiency as you get higher-power lasers (which isn't a given by any means.) NIF's flack told me that they're aiming for 10-20% efficient. If they completely succeed at this massive R&D project -- a big if -- you'd get a gain of, at best, 5 from the fusion reaction -- 5x more power out of the fusion reaction than you put in -- and that's not counting the inefficiencies in the capacitor banks, the power required to fabricate the targets, repair the optics, etc., etc.

In short, even in the best-case scenario, even if everything goes perfectly for LLNL, at best, the fusion engine in LIFE won't really be producing energy.

It's par for the fusion-energy course, unfortunately. (I talk about this in my book, Sun in a Bottle: The Strange History of Fusion and the Science of Wishful Thinking.)
posted by cgs06 at 6:12 AM on June 18, 2010 [30 favorites]

I generally back stuff that involves lasers and fusion. These links seem a bit, err, overly optimistic.
posted by Mister_A at 6:16 AM on June 18, 2010

Nekulturny: The "salt" is a blanket of lithium salts... it absorbs neutrons directly (generating tritium) and it pulls heat out of the fission reactions. In theory, by circulating the salt (which is molten) in and out of the reaction chamber, you can put the heat to work (by, say, boiling water, which drives a turbine.) It would be something like a lithium-cooled nuclear reactor. The only real difference is that instead of a fissioning core, you have a fissioning blanket driven by fusion neutrons.
posted by cgs06 at 6:32 AM on June 18, 2010

(er... by lithium-cooled, I mean molten-salt-cooled. The lithium is not in its elemental state.)
posted by cgs06 at 6:39 AM on June 18, 2010

(+10 40 years to commercial)

posted by caddis at 6:49 AM on June 18, 2010

Pretty much the only thing that will keep our society from devolving into feudalism will be the discovery of an energy source at least as boundless and as cheap as oil in the 70s. It would be nice if that source wasn't predicated on the destruction of natural resources on a massive scale. So: GO FISSION. or FUSION. Or whatever.

SCIENCE, BITCHES. It saves the world. Or it gets the hose again.
posted by seanmpuckett at 6:52 AM on June 18, 2010

Youngsters may not recall that the LLNL has been regularly trotting out laser fusion projects for the last 40 years. And every single one of them was poised to go commercial in ten years after startup.

I'm not saying it's impossible, just that these claims aren't much different from the ones being made before you were born...
posted by warbaby at 7:20 AM on June 18, 2010

Are y'all kidding about the movie? It's horrible. "LIFE: red blocks go flying around a flat shaded Scientific Apparatus while a virtual camera swoops around nauseatingly. The red blocks turn blue and ignite the fuel, causing the reaction chamber to explode". Not only is the video fluff which fails to inform, it fails to even entertain. WTF?
posted by Nelson at 7:23 AM on June 18, 2010 [1 favorite]


LLNL has tours (not guaranteed to include NIF) on Tuesdays at 9am. They need six people to run a tour, and when I called on Monday no one had signed up for July 6th. If four more people call them at (925) 422-4599 and ask about that date they may run it.
posted by djb at 7:31 AM on June 18, 2010

The video would be better if it Powerhouse for the music. Or the recent OK Go song with the rube goldberg video. Or yakity sax. Anything besides the Airport Thriller Overture that they're using now.
posted by condour75 at 7:45 AM on June 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

5x more power out of the fusion reaction than you put in

That would be awesome!
posted by stbalbach at 8:10 AM on June 18, 2010

SCIENCE, BITCHES. It saves the world. Or it gets the hose again.

Yeah, brilliant. Let's keep running toward the cliff, with the survival plan being telling each other we're about to learn how to fly.
posted by namasaya at 8:35 AM on June 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

Fool me once, that's shame on me
Fool me twice, that's shame on you
Fool me hundred times, that's nuclear foolsion
posted by storybored at 8:42 AM on June 18, 2010 [2 favorites]

Yeah, brilliant. Let's keep running toward the cliff, with the survival plan being telling each other we're about to learn how to fly.

Except human nature or at the very least, the nature of the political/power structures that "win", seem inherently predisposed to running towards the cliff

If you think you've found the brakes, I'll subscribe to your newsletter
posted by crayz at 9:09 AM on June 18, 2010

djb, that would be an awesome meetup. But I'd have to bum a ride from someone. Anybody else interested?
posted by Quietgal at 10:38 AM on June 18, 2010

The brakes are not difficult to understand! Here are the policy steps the major economies need to enact to make dirty energy a thing of the past:
  1. Price all (ALL!) of the externalities of extracting and burning fossil fuel via taxation, including tariffs on dirty imported goods.
  2. There is no step 2.
If you do 1. right, you solve the problem. Bad energy sources get too expensive, and efficiency increases to make up the difference between cheap, filthy energy and harder to capture (but infinitely abundant!) clean sun-and-moon energy.

Phase the taxes in over ten years. You can use all of the tax and tariff revenue to move the transition along with infrastructure projects and efficiency subsidies. Nobody's standard of living needs to go down, and such an undertaking would do wonders for the unemployment rate.

We have the technology to be more efficient in the way we use energy on every level. We've had it for a long time, and it will only get better. But with cheap, filthy energy, we have not made it a priority. We have no market will to get there except on the smallest of scales as a consumer expression of upper middle class feel-goodery.

Huge numbers of people in industrialized countries are living in housing that was built before people realized the earth's resources weren't actually infinite. We're only this decade taking our first steps toward mass-producing cars that don't do really obvious things wrong, like idling in traffic or at stop lights. America is almost purpose-built to squander energy. There are improvements everywhere waiting to be picked up, and in the aggregate they can save our civilization.

That's the blueprint. But government has been so thoroughly captured by narrow status quo interests that politicians' jobs depend on their inability or unwillingness to see, name, and correct the crippling flaws in the system if doing so would damage the business model of any company anywhere, so I figure we're doomed anyway.
posted by zjacreman at 10:45 AM on June 18, 2010

LIFE just takes clean fusion and turns it into dirty nasty fission/fusion hybrid. Hybrid fission/fusion reactors disappeared for a while but they're making a comeback because regular fusion is so hard. Laser fusion is really hard because the targets are so big and the lasers so inefficient. Doing fusion has been likened to compressing jelly with rubber bands. I think the solution to making fusion work efficiently is to make the targets much smaller.

On a related note I invented a method to do fusion at the nanoscale called NanoFusion. There's more info here:

cgs06 - I loved your book Sun in a Bottle.
djb and quietgal - I'm in for a tour on July 6th. I can drive up from San Jose and take 3 more passengers.
posted by edmo at 12:14 PM on June 18, 2010

Pretty much the only thing that will keep our society from devolving into feudalism will be the discovery of an energy source at least as boundless and as cheap as oil in the 70s. It would be nice if that source wasn't predicated on the destruction of natural resources on a massive scale.

The first steam engine was invented to help mine coal. Why were they mining coal? They were running out of wood. Fossil fuels have been where it's at for 400 years, and it's quite likely that a tiny chunk of black rock going up in flames is what's enabling me to type me fancy messages on the innertubes right now. Energy-wise, science just hasn't got us as far as we think it has, rather the other way 'round...
posted by Diablevert at 2:04 PM on June 18, 2010

I actually went on the tour with my Nuclear Engineering seminar class at Cal. It was pretty neat seeing the bicycles everywhere on the campus, the aerogel sample, the Huge-Ass Laser and even a hohlraum. The scientist told us how they use spider silk to hold the hohlraums in place and since then I've always thought about how strange it is that this state-of-the-art, multi-million dollar fusion facility is also paying for the care and feeding of a couple of spiders on the taxpayers' dime.

Speaking of hohlraums, I have to ask, why do they need it? I'm sure the scientist who showed it to us told us the reason, but I've forgotten. Why not blast the lasers directly onto the target instead of reflecting them?

Also, Sebmojo and whoever else is interested, that's 39.6 metric tons after starting with 40 MTs of fuel. So, they're actually reducing (the mass of) nuclear waste! Still, "its radiation flux is so great that any attempt at stealing it would be suicidal." doesn't bode well for non-criminal handlers.

I think the travelling wave reactor option that Bill Gates supports (around 13:47) sounds better and more viable.
posted by HE Amb. T. S. L. DuVal at 6:21 PM on June 18, 2010

artw: damn straight. and they ought to have them, too.
posted by lodurr at 1:05 PM on June 22, 2010

Anybody interested in visiting LLNL, head on over to MetaTalk for a meetup.
posted by Quietgal at 4:39 PM on June 22, 2010

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