Another Fusion Failure?

More news from the fusion “fornever” front. Physics Today reports that the Department of Energy’s highly-touted inertial confinement laser fusion project – known as the National Ignition Facility or NIF – looks like a bust. If so, it would join all the other big-government failures over decades to establish fusion as a source of electric energy.

NIF internals

NIF internals

The highly-regarded physics magazine reported, “More than three years after the deadline passed for obtaining a sustained, high-energy-yield nuclear fusion reaction at the National Ignition Facility (NIF), the US Department of Energy is still unsure whether the $3.5 billion laser can ever attain that milestone.” The NIF, located at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, attempts to use lasers to concentrate energy to a point where hydrogen atoms can fuse and produce prodigious, but controllable, energy. The basis is the fusion reaction in hydrogen bombs, an uncontrolled reaction.

So far, no one – and there are multiple national and international projects – has been able to harness fusion. When I first started reporting on fusion in the mid-1970s, the scientists said fusion would be 25 years in the future. Most recently, the estimate was 100 years: as governments around the globe spent more money on fusion, its advent retreated ever further.

The laser project – partly obscured by its dual civilian and military objectives, which limited external examination – was going to be the answer, according to DOE and LLNL scientists. No longer. An internal DOE report, says Physics Today, concluded, “The question is if the NIF will be able to reach ignition in its current configuration and not when it will occur.”

Three years ago, DOE suspended the Livermore campaign to achieve NIF ignition – the point at which the fusion reaction produces more energy than it takes to spark it. Without ignition, fusion power is hopeless. The latest assessment comes three years’ later and suggests that no progress has been made toward to the key development.

Stephen Bodner, a long-time critic of fusion who directed a Navy research program, told Physics Today that the DOE report “is confirmation of what I predicted in 1995. It took the community 21 years and many billions of dollars to vindicate my predictions. So sad.” Bodner in a 1995 technical article said the lasers would create plasma instabilities, the bugaboo of all approaches to fusion so far.

The competing, and older, approach to fusion has used magnetic confinement – large circular magnets known as “tokomaks” to confine the plasma needed to set off controlled fusion in donut-shaped vessels. The U.S. spent billions of dollars on failed tokomak projects and is now supporting the multi-billion-dollar International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor project in France, which also appears unlikely to succeed in capturing fusion energy.