A series of lasers built to study nuclear fusion reactions at the US National Ignition Facility (NIF) at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory aims to replace uranium-based nuclear fission with cleaner, safer fusion reactions to provide energy to power plants.
Despite the fact the world’s biggest laser did not make a key target date on the road to producing clean energy via nuclear fusion, an independent review panel believes there is enough potential in the endeavor to keep it afloat for now – with some changes.
NIF failed to meet the 30 September 2012 deadline set by Congress, the deadline set by which ignition was intended to be achieved. No one is certain why exactly the NIF fell short.
NIF’s original approach was to fire a 192-beam laser at a metal shell the size of a pencil eraser, holding a ball of frozen hydrogen to produce a burst of X-rays that heats and compresses the hydrogen, fusing the nuclei in a brief implosion. Experts are now wondering if this was the right approach.
Although still optimistic about the possibilities of the technology, the US National Research Council has gotten involved and has made several recommendations for fusion developers. Some of these suggestions involve exploring different types of targets, evaluating the existing laser design, and even replacing the laser with beams of heavy ions.
The panel wants to test new optical techniques that have been able to fire laser pulses at the hydrogen while still in uniform compression. Some experts doing away with the lasers and instead firing heavy ions from a particle accelerator reminiscent of the ones in the Geneva Switzerland facility that is home to the Large Hadron Collider.