What to Do with a Failed $5 Billion Experiment?
So you spent 17 years and $5 billion to build a fusion experiment. You built a facility wider than the length of three football fields. You built a 400-foot-long laser with more than 33,000 optical parts; it is currently the highest energy laser in the world. You've been through more budget overruns and management problems than you'd care to admit.
Now, you finally turn the thing on at full power and carry out your experiment. And it fails monumentally. Now what?
This is the dilemma facing the National Ignition Facility (NIF). Built with the promise of providing ignition -- creating fusion energy greater than the energy needed to release it -- NIF fell 28,000 times short of its goal. No one knows how to fix it. So NIF has now been finding other things to occupy its time.
There are many useful things to do with a 1.8 MJ laser system.
One recent experiment tested whether diamond can take on a new crystalline form if you squeeze it hard enough. A pressure of 49 million Earth atmospheres was applied to a tiny sliver of the hardest natural material by placing it in the target chamber and firing the giant laser. The predicted crystal restructuring didn't occur. As the pressure increased, the diamond remained resilient instead of abruptly reordering its atoms. This tells us more about diamond and also about the behavior of carbon structures in the cores of extremely dense planets like Jupiter.
Another use for the NIF laser is to gather data for the design and upkeep of nuclear weapons. Since 1992 the US has not tested a single nuclear device. Real world tests of new bomb designs and the working condition of older weapons can no longer be carried out. The task falls to extremely complex codes run on supercomputers. NIF can produce heats and pressures found in bomb detonations. It also mimics the crushing action applied from the fission detonation to produce the far more powerful fusion reaction used in thermonuclear "hydrogen" bombs. Implosion-triggered fusion data can be gathered from NIF to guide the computer simulations.
NIF has also been running experiments on the properties of various materials at extremely high pressures and temperatures, shock wave creation, hydrodynamics and fuel pellets to look for better fusion results.
There are also a few useless things to do with a 1.8 MJ laser system.
This seems like piling on, so let's be clear: fusion power is a goal worth spending billions on. It will take decades of work and massive resources to succeed. Taking gambles on facilities like NIF is a part of this process, and certainly a worthwhile investment. Now that this effort has failed, however, we need to find new science to produce at this uniquely powerful and capable facility.