The National Ignition Facility’s (NIF), laser fusion project based at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, California, announced it has completed a test that produced more energy output than energy input, a big step from the five year old facility.
NIF scientists claim the energy yield was 10 times greater than previous attempts and demonstrates the goal of “ignition” of a self-sustaining reaction that produces more energy than it consumes, the holy grail of cheap, plentiful, environmentally friendly, energy independence.
In contrast to a UK fusion research site (JET) that uses a high-powered magnetic scheme to contain a reaction, NIF has been tweaking a centrifugal method and used a new method to focus lasers on fuel chips of tritium and deuterium to crush them from the relative size of a basketball down to a pea, that fuses the particles together producing energy during the implosion process.
According to the NIF research paper published today in Nature,
These experiments show an order-of-magnitude improvement in yield performance over past deuterium–tritium implosion experiments. We also see a significant contribution to the yield from α-particle self-heating and evidence for the ‘bootstrapping’ required to accelerate the deuterium–tritium fusion burn to eventually ‘run away’ and ignite.
According to NPR
Omar Hurricane, a researcher at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, says that for the first time, they’ve produced significant amounts of fusion by zapping a target with their laser. “We’ve gotten more energy out of the fusion fuel than we put into the fusion fuel,” he says.
Strictly speaking, while more energy came from fusion than went into the hydrogen fuel, only about 1 percent of the laser’s energy ever reached the fuel. Useful levels of fusion are still a long way off. “They didn’t get more fusion power out than they put in with the laser,” says Steve Cowley, the head of a huge fusion experiment in the U.K. called the Joint European Torus, or JET.
The laser is known as the National Ignition Facility, or NIF. Constructed at a cost of more than $3 billion, it consists of 192 beams that take up the length of three football fields. For a brief moment, the beams can focus 500 trillion watts of power — more power than is being used in that same time across the entire United States — onto a target about the width of a No. 2 pencil.
Fun fact: The NIF was used as the set for the starship Enterprise’s warp core in the movie Star Trek Into Darkness.