In 1977, I had a short-term assignment to a research group competing for a magnetic-confinement fusion test reactor project. When another company got the contract, I decided to leave my employer rather than go back to its advanced fission power efforts. I ended up leaving the nuclear field for good. (No great loss–I had only been in that field for 3 years and had other interests.)
After decades of research, magnetic confinement has yet to prove itself capable of producing power in a sustained fashion. Now the main competing approach to fusion power, inertial confinement, is approaching a milestone that may, at long last, put us on the road to replacing fossil fuels on a large scale.
That road will no doubt be long and tortuous. Producing fusion power requires, essentially, the creation and confinement of a mini-Sun for a long enough time that it produces more energy than was needed to ignite a deuterium fusion reaction.
The most promising magnetic confinement technology, the Tokomak design, has yet to overcome the engineering problems that stand in the way of its commercial development despite four decades of research. The difficulties are easy to imagine. How can you create a stable magnetic bottle to confine a ten-million degree plasma that is undergoing nuclear fusion?
Inertial confinement avoids the need for a “bottle.” A pellet of solid hydrogen is blasted with lasers, raising its temperature to the point of igniting fusion so quickly that it produces far more energy than the lasers deliver before its atoms have a chance to spread out. It, too, has had decades of development and major obstacles to commercialization.
Now a new inertial confinement fusion research facility is about to come on line at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. After twelve years of construction, the National Ignition Facility (NIF) is now complete, with first operations set for June.
For its half-century history, fusion power research has always seemed to be 30-40 years from practical application. That still may be true. But NIF offers the possibility that fusion power may indeed become practical on a much shorter time scale. Just as it took little more than a decade from atomic bomb to commercial fission reactors, could it now take a comparably short period from NIF to fusion power, just when we need it most to stave off the worst consequences of global warming?
If I were a fresh Ph.D. looking for work these days, I would be eager to work at NIF.
I hope the early results are encouraging and follow-up work leads to commercialization in my lifetime.