Photos of the target chamber and one target used at the National Ignition Facility used to make fusion happen. The green sphere is a capsule where the fuel(hydrogen) is loaded. The outer gold cylinder is the hohlraum, which converts incoming laser light into intense x-rays.

The NIF building with a cut-away showing the fusion reactor

In August 2021, a fusion reaction at the National Ignition Facility near Pleasanton, Ca generated a world-record 1.3 MJ (megajoules) in clean energy, for the first time creating more energy than the input. This is a historic breakthrough.

The National Ignition Facility (NIF), is a large laser-based research lab, located at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in Livermore, California outside of San Jose. NIF uses lasers to heat and compress a small target of hydrogen fuel with the goal of sparking nuclear fusion reactions.

“These extraordinary results from NIF advance the science that NNSA (National Nuclear Security Administration) depends on to modernize our nuclear weapons and production as well as open new avenues of research,” said Jill Hruby, DOE under secretary for Nuclear Security and NNSA administrator.

Notice weapons are mentioned; this is how the research is justified. Fusion energy could make fossil fuels obsolete, a prospect that influential giant petroleum companies do not appreciate. So it’s “weapons”. And far, far more.

Fusion is clean. Fission is dirty. Now we have ignition of fusion

Fission takes place when large, unstable atoms (like uranium) are bombarded by high-speed neutrons. This creates radioactive byproducts. In contrast, fusion uses hydrogen from water as fuel and produces harmless helium.

The sun produces light and energy that everyone can see and feel, millions of miles away. Fusion is the process that powers the sun. It works by merging of two small atoms to make a large one, releasing fantastic amounts of energy. E=MC2 tells us one gram of matter has 1.8 x 10^14 Joules of energy.

That’s about the same amount of energy as *20* loaded AIrbus A380 airliners. From 1 gram.

But nuclear fusion requires temperatures far beyond what any solid material could possibly withstand. To capture the sun’s power source here on Earth, what’s needed is a way of capturing and containing something that hot — 100 million degrees or more — by suspending it in a way that prevents it from ever coming into contact with anything solid. Anything solid is instantly annihilated and becomes more fuel. The NIF uses “inertial confinement fusion”, which uses a system of 192 lasers to heat up fuel pellets producing a plasma. The intense light pressure from the lasers holds the plasma in place. Together they are 100 billion times greater than the pressure of Earth’s atmosphere.

“Fusion in a lot of ways is the ultimate clean energy source,” says Maria Zuber, MIT’s vice president for research. “The amount of power that is available is really game-changing.” The fuel used to create fusion energy comes from normal water, and “the Earth is full of water — it’s a nearly unlimited resource.”

For a commercial fusion reactor, these fusion reactions need to be self-sustaining, meaning that they need to heat the plasma enough to cause continuing fusion reactions. This self-sustaining condition is called ignition.

So ignition means the nuclear fusion reaction can continue indefinitely. The results from the experiment on 8 August show an energy output of over 1.3 mega-joules, which marks a previously agreed threshold for the onset of ignition, and is 8 times the previous highest energy achieved. Scientists are getting excited.

Debra Ann Callahan deigned the hohlraum and presented the results at a Plasma Physics meeting in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania: “We got out almost 6 times as much energy as we put into the capsule,” she says. “It’s a big accomplishment.” She adds that achieving ignition is “what I set out to do” in becoming a nuclear fusion scientist, “and we did it.”

Dr. Arthur Turrell, from the Department of Physics at Imperial College, London says: “The team at the National Ignition Facility, and their partners around the world, deserve every plaudit for overcoming some of the most fearsome scientific and engineering challenges that humanity has ever taken on. It will inspire future research…”

The cities in Star Trek are fusion powered. With ignition, maybe a reality?

The promise and potential benefits to humankind from this natural carbon-free energy source are enormous. Achieving this goal would have far-reaching and significant effects on all human civilization and its impact on the planet. For centuries.


David Raiklen
David Raiklen

David Raiklen wrote, directed and scored his first film at age 9. He began studying keyboard and composing at age 5. He attended, then taught at UCLA, USC and CalArts. Among his teachers are John Williams and Mel Powel.
He has worked for Fox, Disney and Sprint. David has received numerous awards for his work, including the 2004 American Music Center Award. Dr. Raiklen has composed music and sound design for theater (Death and the Maiden), dance (Russian Ballet), television (Sing Me a Story), cell phone (Spacey Movie), museums (Museum of Tolerance), concert (Violin Sonata ), and film (Appalachian Trail).
His compositions have been performed at the Hollywood Bowl and the first Disney Hall. David Raiken is also host of a successful radio program, Classical Fan Club.