Researchers at a laboratory in California say they've had a breakthrough in producing fusion reactions with a giant laser. The success comes after years of struggling to get the laser to work and is another step in the decades-long quest for fusion energy.
Omar Hurricane, a researcher at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, says that for the first time, they've produced significant amounts of fusion by zapping a target with their laser. "We've gotten more energy out of the fusion fuel than we put into the fusion fuel," he says.
Strictly speaking, while more energy came from fusion than went into the hydrogen fuel, only about 1 percent of the laser's energy ever reached the fuel. Useful levels of fusion are still a long way off. "They didn't get more fusion power out than they put in with the laser," says Steve Cowley, the head of a huge fusion experiment in the U.K. called the Joint European Torus, or JET.
The laser is known as the National Ignition Facility, or NIF. Constructed at a cost of more than $3 billion, it consists of 192 beams that take up the length of three football fields. For a brief moment, the beams can focus 500 trillion watts of power — more power than is being used in that same time across the entire United States — onto a target about the width of a No. 2 pencil.
The goal is fusion: a process where hydrogen atoms are squeezed together to make helium atoms. When that happens, a lot of energy comes out. It could mean the answer to the world's energy problems, but fusion is really, really hard to do. Hurricane says that each time they try, it feels like they're taking a test.
"Of course you want to score real well, you think you've learned the material, but you just have to see how you do," he says.
Over the past few years, NIF has been getting a fat "F." For all its power, it just couldn't get the hydrogen to fuse, and researchers didn't know why. The failures have led NIF's critics to label the facility an enormous waste of taxpayer dollars. In 2012, the government shifted NIF away from its fusion goals to focus on its other mission: simulating the conditions inside nuclear weapons.
But the fusion experiments continued, and Hurricane says researchers now understand why their original strategy wasn't working. In the journal Nature, he and his colleagues report that they've finally figured out how to squeeze the fuel with the lasers. By doing a lot of squeezing right at the start, they were able to keep the fuel from churning and squirting out. The lasers squeezed evenly and the hydrogen turned into helium.
The new technique can't reach "ignition," which is the point at which the hydrogen fusion feeds on itself to make more. Even so, JET's Cowley says, this is still a big moment for NIF.
"I think it's still a very important step forward, they reached fusion conditions, they made some fusion happen, and that's not been done before [with a laser]," he says.
Hurricane says no one knows for sure whether NIF can really reach the point of ignition. "It's not up to me; it's up to Mother Nature," he says. "But we're certainly going to try."
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
Today, researchers at a laboratory in California claim they've made a breakthrough in producing energy through nuclear fusion. Fusion powers the sun and stars, and scientists dream of harnessing it here on Earth to solve our energy problems.
NPR's Geoff Brumfiel reports on this latest attempt, which uses a giant laser.
GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: Walk through the front door of the world's biggest laser facility and you'll be impressed. There's 192 beams, they take up the length of three football fields. And for a brief moment, they can focus more power than is being used across the entire United States onto a target the width of a number two pencil.
Omar Hurricane is a researcher using the laser. He's at Lawrence Livermore Lab and he goes to work not through those big front doors but through an underground service tunnel.
OMAR HURRICANE: That long walk down the tunnel gives me a sense of the scale. And actually that's also, in that tunnel where, you know, I start to feel some of the anxieties and kind of give the facility a pat on the wall for good luck.
BRUMFIEL: Hurricane has been feeling a lot of anxiety lately. This facility, it's called the National Ignition Facility, was built to produce nuclear fusion. Fusion is a process where hydrogen atoms are squeezed together until they fuse into helium atoms. When that happens, a lot of energy is released. But fusing hydrogen is tough. Hurricane says each time they try, it feels like they're taking a test.
HURRICANE: Of course, you want to score real well. You think you've learned the material but you just have to see how you do.
BRUMFIEL: Until now, this multi-billion dollar laser has been getting a fat F. For all its power, it just couldn't get the hydrogen to fuse and researchers didn't know why.
HURRICANE: There were some things that weren't understood maybe as well as was originally believed.
BRUMFIEL: This is a little surprising because researchers like Hurricane achieved fusion decades ago, in a very different way.
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UNIDENTIFIED MAN: In less than a minute, you will see the most powerful explosion ever witnessed by human eyes.
BRUMFIEL: In 1952, the U.S. tested the first hydrogen bomb. The bomb made lots of fusion energy but it only worked by making it all at once. It vaporized the island it was tested on. The idea of using lasers is to create a much smaller, more manageable reaction. But squeezing hydrogen is hard.
HURRICANE: I think anyone - even kids have had this experience - if you try squeezing balloons or a tennis ball or something, you can squeeze it a little. But if you squeeze it a lot it will squirt out through your fingers.
BRUMFIEL: Today in the journal Nature, Hurricane and his colleagues report that they've finally figured out how to squeeze hydrogen atoms just right. They've got fusion, but overall they still produced just a tiny fraction of the energy they used.
STEVE COWLEY: They didn't get more fusion power out than they put in with the laser.
BRUMFIEL: Steve Cowley heads another huge fusion experiment in the Britain called JET.
COWLEY: But I think it's still a very important step forward. They reached fusion conditions. They made some fusion happen, and that's not been done before.
BRUMFIEL: At least, not with lasers. There's still a long way to go. But these findings have given Omar Hurricane hope. Hope that with more practice they can bring fusion closer to being the endless energy source everyone wants it to be.
Geoff Brumfiel, NPR News.
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This is ALL THINGS CONSID ERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.