Fusion Shot in the Arm...


A laser fusion power plant proposed by Longview Fusion Energy Systems would generate 1000 MWh or more of electricity. The plant would compress fusion fuel by using an indirect drive, the same approach used at the National Ignition Facility, which in December announced that it had produced ignition and gain, the first time that fusion researchers have attained those milestones.

Topics: Futurism, Lasers, Modern Physics, Nuclear Fusion

The attainment of fusion ignition and energy gain on the world’s most energetic laser late last year was indisputably a major scientific accomplishment. But the road to fusion as a viable source of energy will be a long one, if not a dead end. And if it does ultimately become a reality, most experts say that it is unlikely that a laser-driven fusion power plant will be based on the approach taken by the National Ignition Facility (NIF), where the fusion milestone occurred.

The December shot, which produced 1.5 times the 2 MJ of energy that was fired on the fusion fuel, has silenced skeptics who said that ignition could never be created by bombarding tiny capsules of deuterium–tritium fuel with lasers. (See “National Ignition Facility surpasses long-awaited fusion milestone,” Physics Today online, 13 December 2022.) “They have done something very important: demonstrating ignition and burn,” says Stephen Bodner, a retired head of the laser fusion branch at the US Naval Research Laboratory who once was a persistent critic of NIF’s approach.

And the milestone is likely to open the floodgates to new investments in the handful of startups that are pursuing inertial fusion energy (IFE). “I think you will see a proliferation of companies devoted to IFE or aspects of IFE because of this and because of investor interest,” says Todd Ditmire, a University of Texas at Austin physicist who is chief technology officer of Focused Energy, an IFE startup.

Yet despite the fanfare greeting the announcement, the fact is that the fusion energy yield from the successful shot amounted to less than 1% of the 300 MJ taken from the electricity grid to power NIF’s 192 beams. And the energy released was enough to boil about 10 tea kettles. Many experts say that economically viable fusion will require fusion reactions yielding energy gains of at least 100 times the energy deposited on the fuel capsule—two orders of magnitude greater than the NIF shot.

NIF success gives laser fusion energy a shot in the arm, David Kramer, Physics Today

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