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February 21, 2010

Lasers may enable fusion

Posted: 05:31 PM ET

Can a swimming pool's worth of water power California for a year?

The answer is yes, assuming all goes according to plan for scientists working on laser-driven fusion, said Ed Moses at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. Moses spoke at the annual meeting of the American Association of the Advancement of Science, AAAS, on Sunday.

The sun's heat and light get generated in a fusion reaction, in which two hydrogen atoms combine to make helium. This reaction is driven by gravity, whereas in the proposed fusion reactor, particles come together because of lasers.

Water is the main and virtually limitless ingredient, since the idea is to make use of hydrogen particles in water. This summer and fall, researchers hope to test their technique with tritium, a radioactive isotope of hydrogen that has one proton and two neutrons.

Energy from this fusion machine would be harnessed as follows: The reaction produces neutrons, which are slowed down in a liquid salt. The salt gets hot, and then it's pumped as a heat exchanger, essentially making steam. There are also other advanced ideas about how to get the energy out of the process, including the induction of electric currents.

The capability to get more energy out than is put in should be available in about five to seven years, Moses said. Researchers hope to get a demonstration plant up and running in the next 10 to 15 years.

There are, of course, social challenges in addition to technical challenges, he said. Fusion is one of many approaches being considered for cleaner energy.

To learn more, visit the site of the Laser Inertial Fusion Engine.

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Filed under: Energy

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Pasta Brain   February 23rd, 2010 3:46 pm ET

Every time I see an article like this I always hear people say something dumb like big oil is supressing this. Trust me. If big oil thought this was possible or even viable long term replacement, they wouldn't seek to surpress it. They would seek to control it and then commercialize it as fast as possible.

The real reason this will probably never be a reality is something far less sinister like resource supply...

John   February 23rd, 2010 4:25 pm ET

Adam, fusion does not break the laws of thermodynamics. That should be obvious considering the Sun is an example of fusion at work.

Obviously, the goal of a fusion reactor is to convert enough matter to energy so that the energy created is greater than the energy requried to create the fusion reaction. Again, an example would be the Sun.

Li Tai Fang   February 23rd, 2010 4:45 pm ET

We already have the technology to get more energy from fusion than the amount we put in. It's called hydrogen bomb. The problem is controlling the release of energy in an orderly manner, so that it can be used as a power plant.

Sergei   February 23rd, 2010 4:59 pm ET

Enthalpy said "Worse: to produce as much electricity, fusion expels three times more neutrons than uranium does, so induced radioactivity is three times worse. Fusion energy is neither abundant not clean, and won't work any time soon."

The holy grail of fusion is to produce an aneutronic reaction using something like p-B which will produce < 0.8% of the level of neutrons emitted from D-D or D-T. Based on the current progress of z-pinch, I will wager a bet that this will be accomplished within 10 yrs., and that they will achieve positive net energy within 5 yrs.

chall   February 23rd, 2010 5:27 pm ET

OK, those of you with the big brains, help me out here...I thought fusion produced much more energy and radiation than fission? Also, isn't this isotope they are planning to use for their test only found in a) stars and b) nuclear reactors as a by-product of fission? Where does the swimming pool full of water come in?

Crew   February 23rd, 2010 7:12 pm ET

Random points:

** Not only is Fusion safe from a "Radioactive" perspective, it will facillitate the neutraliziation of existing radioactive materials including waste that we currently store, should we choose to pursue this.

** Although we currently invest more energy into a fusion reaction than we extract, a larger issues is that we lack the technology to sustain the reaction. This laser theory intends to resolve this.

** To "David" who claimed fusion might have the ability to melt the earth. Where did you hear this? I believe you are reading science fiction, or maybe you work for the oil industry?

zipprian   February 23rd, 2010 7:21 pm ET

Fusion makes no sense. The requirements to sustain fusion are debilitating. Fission on the otherhand is much easier to accomplish and we have enough fissile material to power mankind for thousands of years. People are over paranoid about it however, so our own stupidity and ignorance are holding us back.

Fusion Boi   February 23rd, 2010 7:56 pm ET

I thought that the NIF was going to test DT fusion. Since tritium isn't a component of water in any usable quantity, why is water even mentioned? The fuel isn't going to come from water if it requires tritium. Tritium must be manufactured – IN A FISSION REACTOR.

Mike from Chicago   February 23rd, 2010 8:19 pm ET

Why do they keep wasting time and money on Fusion?

25 years ago they were saying the same thing. The physics just doesn't work. It consumes more energy than it produces.

We should be looking more at Thorium reactors (safer than uranium and shorter-lived by-products) or maybe depleted Uranium (only because we have a lot of it available now).

DR. S.LETZRING   February 23rd, 2010 11:34 pm ET

I have been working in laser fusion for almost 40 years!! Don't believe all the hype! It is still a very difficult problem! In order to make a power plant- the laser would have to fire at ~ 10 times per second. Right now – the technology is able to fire a laser about twice per hour. We have a long way to go!

Dan   February 24th, 2010 2:02 am ET

For those looking for serious information, please visit the University of Rochester's site about laser research:
download a guide to "Inertial Confinement Fusion: An Introduction"
LLE has created a book for readers of all backgrounds to learn about and share the excitement of inertial fusion research.

Ikemefuna M   February 24th, 2010 3:20 am ET

wow...fusion at last. Has anyone thought about how we can use this technology in warfare?? must have some applications in

Johan S   February 24th, 2010 8:11 am ET

Fusion energy is safer than gasoline. For one thing, the amount of fuel in the reactor is tiny. Second .. fusion reactions are EXTREMELY hard to sustain, actually nobody has proven they can do it even. So a runaway reaction is impossible because

a) there is not enough fuel in the system
b) it takes a lot of carefully timed lasers that are dynamically adjusting in order to sustain the reaction. For one thing the lasers themselves would melt first.

Steve   February 24th, 2010 10:09 am ET

Really we are arguing over something that hasn't even been completed. We need to cut our dependency to oil, I agree with that but for now that will not happen. Corporations run the world, and thats sad. We will be dependendant on oil for quiet some time, unless we do something about that. I lived in Iceland for two years, they have hydrogen fuel there and guess what they have no problems with cars going BOOM! So why the heck aren't we going to that, cause we are owned by companies, we all buy products like gas because we aren't given an alternative, but I bet if you had an alternative that was cheaper you would do it. The real money needs to go to researching hydrogen fuel, ways to make it safer, etc. Last I checked hydrogen was a renewable fuel source, or even better lets all get a bio diesel vehicle and run our cars on vegtable oil. I know this discussion is about powering homes, and commercial buildings, but we have to start somewhere on cutting our dependency to oil, The middle east loves the fact that we fund them to try to kill us..... seems like a vicious circle to me.

Dave   February 24th, 2010 6:38 pm ET

Fusion will be the biggest breakthrough in the history of mankind. To be able to produce endless, clean energy and possibly to be used to propell spacecraft to other stars at relativistic speeds instead of the very slow 35,800 miles per hour that is our limit with current technology. We will be able to travel to Mar within a week instead of 6 months.

Dave   February 24th, 2010 6:43 pm ET

What we know about fusion now will not be what know about fusion within 100 years. By that time we will have perfected fusion to be a safe, reliable source of energy. Oil will be the dinosaur along with coal. I pray that we perfect this new energy source before we totally screw up the Eath's climate for good by burning all oil, gas, and coal on the planet.

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