On Dec. 5, for a fraction of a second, a man-made star was created at the National Ignition Facility (NIF) of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) in California. The occasion was an experiment in nuclear fusion that succeeded in doing something no fusion experiment had done before: It emitted more energy than it consumed.
The experiment amounted to a big step forward in basic science. If the technology used at NIF is developed to its full potential, it could provide a virtually endless source of energy that would be clean and inexpensive. You’d think that nuclear fusion technology would be pushed forward by billions of dollars in research and development, but you’d be wrong, because it doesn’t fit into the “climate change” industry’s mantra that any nuclear power generation has to be bad.
Nuclear fusion is what happens on and in the sun. At temperatures up to 27 million degrees Fahrenheit, the sun fuses types of hydrogen — tritium and deuterium — under enormous pressure in such a way as to produce enough heat and light to warm and illuminate our planet, which is about 93 million miles away.
I spoke to three experts in the field to get smarter on what happened at LLNL: Dr. Bill Schneider, a former chairman of the Defense Science Board who works with LLNL, and Prabhu Thiagarajan and Lukas Gruber, who both work for a business unit of Leonardo Electronics called Leonardo Laser Solutions, located in Tucson, Arizona. As they explained it to me, here’s how the Dec. 5 experiment worked.
In oversimplified terms, a spherical “target” the size of a peppercorn was made from hydrogen-like atoms of tritium and deuterium in a process that took two or three months. In the experiment, 192 lasers were fired at the target every few billionths of a second to produce the heat — about 5 million degrees Fahrenheit — necessary to force the fusion to occur. It worked in an experiment that lasted only a fraction of a second.
The fusion at NIF produced about 150 percent more energy than was put into it to power the lasers and other instruments.
One of the benefits of fusion technology is that it produces virtually no nuclear waste like a nuclear fission plant does. Moreover, the “half-life” of the “activated” materials is far shorter than those of the conventional nuclear power plant, which produces “hot” waste such as fuel rods that are radioactive for hundreds of years.
It will be neither cheap nor easy to develop the NIF exercise — which was a lab experiment, not a power plant — into practical technology that can be used to produce electricity.
When I worked for Lockheed Martin decades ago, I was befriended by a genius named Ben Rich. (He often bragged that he was called “FBR” around the Skunk Works plant, and, as he said, the “F” wasn’t for “friendly.”) Ben told me about the “known unknowns” — the scientific and engineering challenges you know you have to overcome — and the “unknown unknowns,” the “unk-unks” — those problems you don’t yet know of but will encounter while you’re developing a technology and perfecting its engineering.
I asked the three experts about the “known unknowns” they face. They pointed me to two big ones.
First, the “target” mass of tritium and deuterium is destroyed by the fusion that takes place within it. To render the technology feasible, you have to create targets about 10 times per second, not over a period of months as they are now.
Second, fusion emits neutrons that, at this stage, have to be converted into heat and steam to power a turbine engine that will produce electricity. Along the path of research, scientists may discover how to convert neutrons into electricity more simply and directly.
Both of these problems have to be solved — as well as the “unk-unks” that are encountered — before fusion can be made into a usable technology. And that’s where the government has to come in.
Industry can only spend money on research that is paid for either by the government or by rapid transformation into profitable products. The government’s proper role is to fund research into technologies that can later be made into profitable products. It did so many times, from the development of stealth aircraft to former President Donald Trump’s “Operation Warp Speed,” which developed the COVID vaccines in months rather than the decade or more it would normally have taken.
Fusion research will continue, but at a far slower pace than it could were it better funded. The outlook is good, but fusion won’t, at the current rate, produce practical — i.e., usable — fusion technology for at least a decade or two.
What is needed is a major research effort, such as the Manhattan Project, which produced nuclear weapons in the 1940s. But that won’t happen while President Joe Biden and his “climate change” minions govern us. Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro said on March 1: “As the Secretary of the Navy, I can tell you that I have made climate one of my top priorities since the first day I came into office.” Climate change is his priority rather than rebuilding our Navy, which has far fewer ships than the Chinese navy.
As always, it comes down to money. The climate change clowns are investing in reducing carbon emissions — eliminating fuels such as coal, natural gas, and petroleum — and converting us to weather-dependent sources of energy such as wind and solar power. They won’t even consider building more nuclear power plants regardless of how safe they are. (One of my friends used to command a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier. He often reminds me that our nuclear-powered Navy ships have had zero accidents.)
Our government wastes billions on too many idiotic ideas. They are far too many to rehearse here. If we have a new president in 2025, Biden’s priorities can be tossed aside, and those billions can be spent in productive research and development of fusion and other technologies that could make us more secure and energy independent again.