Friday, February 14, 2014

What's the deal w/ NIF and fusion?

The National Ignition Facility at Lawrence Livermore National Lab just published a couple of papers (PRL and Nature) about their latest results in inertial confinement fusion.   The idea is to hit a deuterium-tritium fuel pellet with 192 converging high power laser beams and dump enough energy into the nuclei (by various means) that they can overcome their Coulomb repulsion and fuse, releasing a helium nucleus, a neutron, and energy.  Their latest results demonstrate net "fuel gain" - they are able to infer via complicated means how much energy actually got coupled to the D/T (about 10 kJ in a shot), and from the neutrons they can determine how much energy came out from the fusion reactions (about 15 kJ in a shot).  This sounds great, and it's an important physics milestone for the researchers.  However, something gets lost in the press releases:  They dump in about 1.8 MJ from the lasers to get 10 kJ into the fuel.  That's an input coupling efficiency of 0.05%.  Also, bear in mind that they have to rebuild the whole sample holder and everything before each shot.

While the latest results are a nice and critical physics step, it is extremely hard for me to believe that the NIF approach will ever lead to anything resembling a power plant.  For a sense of scale, the NIF annual budget is something close to $1B, while the US commitment to ITER is on the order of $200M/yr, the Princeton Plasma Physics Lab annual budget is around $100M, and the fusion program at Sandia is about $5M/yr.  (For reference, the F-35 fighter program costs about $12B/yr, and the NSF annual budget is around $7B/yr).   NIF is a fascinating physics testbed, a way to study certain processes without detonating nuclear weapons, and the warp core of the most recent iteration of the starship Enterprise.  However, press articles implying that this recent result is a breakthrough toward fusion power are misleading.


Peter Armitage said...

>The National Ignition Facility at
>Lawrence Livermore National Lab just
>published a couple of papers (PRL
>and Nature) about their latest
>results in inertial confinement

Doug Natelson reads Nature and PRL so the rest of us don't have to. Thanks Doug!

Douglas Natelson said...

That's why I'm here, Peter! (See you in Denver?)