LIFE Fusion on Target for Ignition This Year

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Controlled nuclear fusion with net energy gain is on schedule to occur later this year at the National Ignition Facility (NIF) in Livermore, California.

That was the message from NIF's director for laser fusion energy, Mike Dunne, who spoke at a Photonics West 2012 plenary talk in January. Optics.org covered the event:

"We are now in a position to say with some confidence that ignition will

happen in the next 6-18 months," stated [Dunne], adding that he felt personally that the

breakthrough was likely to happen in around nine months.

The vehicle of what would be a monumental step forward for energy production is called Laser Inertial Fusion Energy (with the awesome acronym "LIFE"). LIFE functions by firing a powerful laser at a small, centimeter scale chamber. The laser generates massive pressures within the chamber and creates temperatures of over 4 million degrees Celsius. Miniscule deuterium-tritium fuel pellets will be rapidly inserted into the chamber, and the aforementioned conditions will induce the deuterium and tritium to fuse together, creating helium, a free neutron, and massive amounts of energy.

LIFE_4.jpgA diagram of a potential LIFE power plant.

While fusion ignition is on schedule, the next eight or so months will be crunch time for NIF scientists. There remains a few key hurdles to overcome, chief among them: actually controlling the fusion reaction.

"As the implosion proceeds at about a million miles an hour, can you create that tiny spark of fusion burn at the very center of the system, without the rest of the system mixing together? The next few months of work will be predominately focused on [this obstacle,]" Dunne said.

Already assuming a successful test in the coming months, scientists at NIF are planning for a fusion future. This has been made realistic by recent advancements in optics, which have dramatically lowered the cost and size of laser technology. In addition, scientists have introduced the concept of line replaceable units into the design of LIFE power plants. This will allow future fusion power plants to minimize downtime for equipment repairs.

"When ignition and gain are achieved on NIF, we will have a substantive

delivery plan to take us to a commercial plant," Dunne told Science and Technology Review. "We will be

ready to go."

The fact that someone is saying "when" and not "if" in regards to fusion power is incredibly exciting. For decades, many have dreamed of bringing star power to Earth, but it's always been firmly out of reach.

The numerous benefits of fusion power are even more electrifying. It's tagline of "clean, inexhaustible energy" is not an overstatement. There exists about 60 million years worth of fusion fuel in seawater and the power generation process would produce no carbon emissions.

My fellow Americans, get excited. Because this fall, the power of the sun may be made in America.

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