A Star Is Born: U.S. Scores Fusion-Power Breakthrough; Experimental Reaction Yields Energy, but Sustainability Still Proves Elusive

A Star Is Born: U.S. Scores Fusion-Power Breakthrough

Experimental Reaction Yields Energy, but Sustainability Still Proves Elusive


Updated Feb. 12, 2014 6:13 p.m. ET


U.S. scientists replicated the power of the sun, if only for a fleeting moment, creating a miniature star that has rekindled hopes that nuclear fusion could one day offer a source of cheap and boundless energy on Earth.

In experiments done at a U.S. Department of Energy laboratory last fall and published in a scientific journal Wednesday, researchers blasted the world’s most powerful laser at a target the size of a small pea. It triggered a fusion reaction that unleashed a vast amount of energy—for a fraction of a second.

“For the first time anywhere, we’ve gotten more energy out of the fuel than what was put into the fuel” when using this technique, said Omar Hurricane, physicist at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and lead author of the study in the journal Nature.

The research is a long way from achieving what’s known as ignition, where the overall setup generates more energy than it consumes in a self-sustaining chain reaction and without which fusion power wouldn’t be practical. In the experiments, much of the energy from the laser was dissipated and didn’t reach the fuel.

But the latest result marks a step forward for the U.S. project after years of setbacks and false promise. And it offers a concrete model for what a commercially viable nuclear-fusion reactor might look like.

“This experiment suggests that it is possible to get to ignition with the scale” of the laser at the Lawrence Livermore lab, said Steven Cowley, director of the Culham Centre for Fusion Energy in the U.K., who wasn’t involved in the study.

Today’s nuclear-power plants generate electricity with fission, which involves splitting atoms. In fusion, atomic nuclei are squashed together under intense heat and pressure to release energy.

The power of fusion became known in the 1950s when the first hydrogen bomb was detonated. Harnessing that energy for peaceful purposes has been a lot more difficult—many scientists would use far stronger words—though there are good reasons to keep trying.

Fusion is the most efficient of any known energy-creating process. The fuel is easy to obtain from natural sources, and there are almost no risks of toxic byproducts or nuclear meltdown.

The latest experiment was done at Lawrence Livermore’s National Ignition Facility, or NIF. The California facility—a 10-story building the size of three football fields—was built at a cost of $3.5 billion and became operational in 2009. It has since cost hundreds of millions of dollars to operate.

The NIF originally hoped to achieve ignition by September 2013, but didn’t come close. Critics have long assailed the NIF for being overbudget, behind schedule and overambitious in its key scientific goal. Even with the latest advance, it is unclear whether it will ever get there.

“It’s very hard. We’re sort of pushing ourselves to the limit to make this happen,” Dr. Hurricane said.

The main rival technique for achieving fusion uses powerful magnets instead of lasers. The U.K.’s Culham Centre used this magnet approach in 1997 to extract 16 megawatts of power by injecting 24 megawatts of power—not too far off from the sought-after “net gain” in energy.

The magnet-based approach has inspired 35 countries, including the U.S., to join forces and embark one of the biggest science projects in recent years: the $20 billion ITER fusion reactor being built in France, which is expected to become operational by 2020.

Most labs have preferred to try the laser approach. The NIF experiment used 192 laser beams and aimed them at a tiny gold can about the size of a dime.

Inside the can was a pea-size capsule containing the fuel, a mixture of two hydrogen isotopes, deuterium and tritium. When laser beams entered the gold can, they struck the inside walls and unleashed a swath of X-rays. Those X-rays smashed into the capsule with tremendous pressure and crushed the fuel capsule to 1/35 of its radial size.

As the capsule shrank, the fuel rapidly converged around the hollow center, but it had nowhere to go. That generated even higher pressures and a temperature higher than what’s seen at the center of the sun, triggering fusion.

In essence, the scientists created a miniature star that existed for a fraction of a second—and then blew itself apart.

The energy released was 10 times as great as that achieved in any previous such experiment.

In a striking finding, the data also showed that the nuclear material was self-heating, a crucial condition for ignition.

But ignition remains a long way off. To get there, scientists need to compress the fuel into a nearly perfect spherical implosion, and that’s not easy to do. It’s one of the reasons past efforts have been fruitless.

“It’s like putting your fingers around a balloon and trying to squeeze it until it’s a thousand times smaller” without distorting it too much, said Dr. Cowley.

The researchers created about 150 gigabars of pressure in their experiment, and expect that 300 gigabars or more will yield ignition. A gigabar is roughly one billion atmospheres of pressure.

They hope to improve the shape and speed of the implosion. One way, is to alter the shape of the gold container to the shape of a rugby ball.

“Mother Nature doesn’t like putting a lot of energy in small volumes, so she fights you on it,” Dr. Hurricane said. “This is a way of fighting back.”


About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (www.heroinnovator.com), the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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