back to article UK, US ink boffinry pact on laser fusion 'star power'

Using nuclear fusion – star energy – to power the world's dishwashers, TVs and servers has long been a twinkling in the misty eyes of physicists, but it inched closer to reality this week as the American National Ignition Facility (strap line: "Bringing Star Power To Earth") struck a deal with the UK company AWE and Oxford-based …


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  1. Matthew Smith

    How well does this tech scale?

    I can appreciate a giant cauldron of plasma powering a city, but will these little pellets of matter scale up to the same level as magnetic fusion?

  2. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    So nothing at all to do with weapons then?

    The bit about NIF that gets a lot less attention is that it is also used to simulate the conditions inside a nuclear weapon at the moment fusion is triggered. Ever since the test ban treaty the bomb people haven't been able to turn chunks of Nevada glow-in-the-dark, so they've had to resort to simulations. And since the UK is joined at the hip to American warhead design, we've got an interest in this project.

    "NIF is crucial to the NNSA Stockpile Stewardship Program because it will be able to create the extreme conditions of temperature and pressure that exist on Earth only in exploding nuclear weapons and that are therefore relevant to understanding the operation of our modern nuclear weapons."

    National Research Council's Plasma Science Committee 2007.

    1. Ken Hagan Gold badge

      Yup, nothing

      That's right. We're taking a piece of kit largely paid for by the bomb-makers and using it for something that might be of rather more benefit to humanity. From your comment, I can't tell whether you are pleased about that or not.

      1. Adam Foxton
        Thumb Up

        Not only that

        but Fusion research is expensive. Very expensive. And that's one 'very expensive' sized lump of cash that's been taken away from the bomb-maker's abilities to make bombs and put towards advancing science and- in future- powering hospitals.

        1. Destroy All Monsters Silver badge


          "We're taking a piece of kit largely paid for by the bomb-makers"

          "lump of cash that's been taken away from the bomb-maker's abilities to make bombs"

          Implying that somebody else than taxpayers is paying for this and that nuke maintenance and upgrade budgets are being affected by opening the kimono to the civilian sector.

          Military *always* gets first choice [that's why there is still several hundred billion USD of industrial cleanup operations to be done on cold war radioactive leftovers - in the best case.]

      2. John Hughes

        "We" being AWE?

        The Atomic Weapons Establishment?

    2. Saigua

      If you believe the top paragraphs of committees, buy larger twee hats.

      Sorry, is there a part of Nevada that doesn't glow in the darK? A landfill? Because usually dry conditions cause some glowing from static, and then there are some silicates and titania that glow from rehydrating at night...we're just talking about glows in dark, right?

      I just need your Greek Sovereign to sign here to take care of the El Al and other state compliances. No, you are not expected to complete this task....

      Well, your atom-sized postsingularity corpus just got less safe because of very, very small (scale) science, then? Numerical simulation considered non-harmful? Perhaps you know what parts of the test ban have expired, changed, etc. and prefer other operational test options? The ones where synthetic e-coli whose job it is to remedy Crohn's Disease have a final option to fire inflammatory cell signalling mechanisms into the abdominal fat pad or beyond? The Lymphoma one just doesn't have a fix to allow necessary coughing.

  3. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    So does that mean we're finally spending more as a nation on researching something useful and with the potential to revolutionise the world in ways that we can hardly imagine than we spend on plastic bags to carry our shopping?

  4. Anonymous Coward

    Star Power

    But possibly the most important question 'is Helium a green house gas or not'? Or indeed could it be possibly implicated as such by the IPCC?

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward


      but Helium would be a useful byproduct for building airships.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Helium supplies

        It's a helpful by-product since helium supplies are limited. Given time deuterium fusion might not have to break even to be cost effective.

    2. Daniel Garcia 2


      As a mono-atomic element, helium has one of the lowest infra-red absorption capacity. it can be consider one of the most transparent substance for the infra red spectrum.

      next question.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Thumb Up


        But are the IPCC going to know? Monatomic looks a bit, well you knows, 'hard science'?

        1. Charlie van Becelaere


          the question will then move to diatomic Helium (He2 - please forgive the lack of subscript there). After all, there is essentially no data available regarding the physical properties of this molecule!

  5. Caff

    I await the pic of an eager politician posing beside it hoping some "star power" will rub off on them

    1. hplasm

      Or better-

      leak out and vapourise them.

  6. AdamSweetman
    Thumb Down

    Really? One white elephant to the next...

    Big Fusion isn't the answer, and although promising NIF won't really solve any energy problems. Given the sheer size and complexity of the method, the volatility of components etc, the ability to build and maintain enough laser based NIF-like plants is incomprehensible and incomparable with the product demand. Its another ITER in the making.

    There are much more promising small fusion ideas coming to fruition at a quicker pace, LPPX Focus Fusion, for example, where the plant will be about the size of a garage and burning boron, which provide a much more viable energy production method which is compatible with the highly distributed consumption model. Big plants dumping significant % of power through transmission loss just isnt the way forward, you need small in-situ automated generation capability, especially if we end up driving electric cars in the near future as default.

    Bussard's Polywell also seems to be progressing well, although under Navy funding, again with the ability to make viable drop in generation capability in place of today's smaller power stations and even sub-station sized installations. Tri-Alpha has some significant backing also and provides a hybrid approach which is attracting some serious investment.

    Positioning NIF as 'better' than ITER is dubious at best, its still a contest of whose the fattest fat person, no real winner in either.

    1. Figgus

      I'm not sure that a lot of small neighborhood plants is a better idea than the big centralized plant. Sure, you have points about efficiency but when it comes to security I think a single bigger plant would be less vulnerable and do less damage overall if compromised.

      1. Anonymous Coward

        I agree... massive plant is a much better idea, just can it be located in Scotland, then when it goes bang, no one will care.

        1. Anonymous Coward

          Scotland? I was thinking Birmingham? wouldnt anyone mind if it disappeared?

          1. Anonymous Coward
            Anonymous Coward

            Croydon. They made a promising start a few weeks ago but then it just fizzled out. Much like this project, I fear....

      2. Saigua

        Targets count matters?

        Sorry? What size n-sided national security center near you has had zero physical vulnerabilities since 1996ish? (Hint: pick a center with a generous estimate of earth's diameter, and 1 undirected side.)

        I have a Venn Dream: (Screenwriters) (Lay Science) ...with a small audience. Sort of small. Never tell them I said small.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      The aim I expect is for someone to crack it in the first place, and the more paths that are being researched the greater the chance that someone will crack it.

      It seems inevitable that when fusion comes its initial practical deployment will be as large stations plugging into the national grid (equivalent) perhaps after a few decades infrastructure and technology would exist to miniaturise the systems, along with suitable security and legislation to allow small scale "local" plants.

    3. Annihilator

      re: Really? One white elephant to the next...

      Yes, what they're building is the final design of the eventual products that consumers will benefit from. That's why the processor that's powering the PC I'm typing this on is made primarily of valves and takes up the entire garage to run.

    4. Captain Thyratron

      Don't listen to crackpots, guy.

      I looked up this "LPPX Focus Fusion" thing and found a website that seems to be more about crackpots selling jewelry than physics. "Jewelry to the rescue! Meditate on aneutronic fusion with this fusion rosary." I coudl not make this shit up if I tried. And there doesn't appear to be any science--at least documented science, and that's the only kind that matters--going on there. Their latest report contains absolutely nothing useful. I cannot find any data or discussion of experimental results or the slightest bit of quantitative rigor. Science is about testing ideas by experiment, not making shit up and taking pictures of apparatus you never explain and trying to hock jewelry instead of posting data. These people are not scientists, and they look to be about as capable of developing a working fusion reactor as Fred Phelps is to develop a close friendship with an openly homosexual man. Stop listening to them.

      By the way, power plants are built big precisely because it is easier to make a large-scale plant efficient than many, many small ones that operate, by necessity, under less thermodynamically favorable conditions. But that's actual physics and most crackpots are scared to death of the stuff.

      I hasten to add that tokamaks tend to get more efficient when they are larger. This is probably the main reason ITER is much larger than similar devices at Princeton, the Max-Planck institute for Plasma Physics, and several other sites. And as for inertially-confined designs, well...the only one of those that can break even and be small that has yet been invented is called the hydrogen bomb. Unless you are building one of those, fusion is hard to fit in a small space. It just isn't easy to keep a plasma an adequate combination of hot and dense without the plasma destabilizing the magnetic field meant to contain it--thereby cooling and ceasing to fuse--or that field taking more power than the reactor can produce. And doing it with lasers has a whole host of problems that, likewise, do not get any better when you make the device smaller. I honestly don't expect the NIF guys to pull it off, but so what? Even if they don't, they've advanced so many prerequisite technologies, especially in optics and semiconductor laser technology--and that is often part of doing this kind of work, and a big part of why it is so costly: It entails developing new technology and tooling and manufacturing processes just so you can do the experiment--and that's to say nothing of the scientific work.

    5. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      and in the future...

      ...there'll be a telephone in every town!

    6. itzman

      Transmisson losses

      In typical national grids are almost negligible. 1-2% at best.

      Whereas the efficiency gains in terms of capital deployed are massive with centralised plant.

      The silly green fantasy of 'distributed micro generation' simply makes no sense at all.

      At least not with existing and potential technology.

      Which is why, largely, we don't personally cut wood for the fire anymore.

  7. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    "It can't any longer be dismissed as something on the far distant horizon."

    True, I'm sure it'll be with us within...ooh....fifty years or so

    1. wim

      right after the flying car.

    2. Captain DaFt

      Aw C'mon!

      It can't be more than five years away, That's what they've been saying since the Fifties!

      (Icon chosen since that's the color your face will turn if you hold your breath waiting for it.)

    3. NikT

      It's been officially upgraded to "something on the quite distant horizon"

  8. Yesnomaybe
    Thumb Down

    I'm sceptical about this

    "Requiring only pellets composed of hydrogen isotopes and producing helium and neutrons, nuclear fusion would provide nuclear power without many of the downsides of nuclear fission – the process that powers our nuclear power plants today – and sweep away many of the current geopolitical energy problems around fossil fuel supplies."

    Making a fusion powerplant is going to be massively expensive. OK, the fuel might be cheap, but running layzors delivering that much power, never mind 192 of them, and all the complex gear to control all that.... It's going to be hard to break even in energy-terms, never mind producing electricity at commercially viable prices. I'm sorry to say: I don't think this is the way out of our looming energy crisis. A nuclear fission plant is incredibly simple in comparison. I'm sure we could have made them even better by now if we'd just accepted the (somewhat unpalatable) truth, that the nuclear powerplant is just about the best card we have available to us. (Note: I'm NOT saying it's perfect, it has it's drawbacks)

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      that's why it's a research project, you don't start with a perfectly working, highly efficient process that works. You start with a piece of junk that barely fires. *Points at the internal combustion engine*

      Yes if you made a power plant the same as the current research generator it would run require more power to run it than it generates. However you wouldn't even contemplate building a large scale reactor until you were able to gain more power than you put in, consistently.

      Then you'd scale up, and scale up, and refine, until you had a commercially viable reactor.

      1. Ian Stephenson

        "You start with a piece of junk that barely fires."

        They are not using my motorcycle!

      2. Anonymous Coward

        @ AC

        "that's why it's a research project, you don't start with a perfectly working, highly efficient process that works. You start with a piece of junk that barely fires."

        Wait a second, so the precursor to meeting the future energy needs of mankind is a 1976 Fiat??

      3. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        no we scale down

        One day fusion will be done like scratch n sniff. Scratch and watch that fucking Xmas tree light up baby!!! Woah dads car just blew a hole in the ionosphere!! Sniff.

      4. Charles Manning


        The ICE got from fires and almost self rotates to actually being a viable power source in one or two years invented by a bloke in his spare time who didn't promise world peace. By the time Joe public became aware of the ICE it was working.

        This fusion malarkey, OTOH, has been over promised as just around the corner for 60+ years, has soaked up insane billions of research funding and has been over-sold to the people that fund it.

        I am not at all against research, but how about putting some of it into technologies that have more promise. LFTR perhaps.

      5. itzman

        Internal combustion fusion engine?

        I have always felt that what we should do is an IC engine that inhales hydrogen (or deuterium) has a laser for a spark plug, and exhausts helium.

        We wouldn't need to contain the plasma. Beyond its being in a ceramic piston/cylinder.. If the hydrogen or deuterium was in the form of water, the working fluid would be steam.

        I.e. we shouldn't be looking to have stable continuous fusion, just micro sizes H bombs going off in water, to make steam.

        In the meantime I look forward to the recycling of ceramic block fission decay products into domestic home heating plants: "free heat for 60 years".

        Once decayed below the level likley to cause panic in the greens, they could be dropped into swimming pools to provide a nice swimming experience.

  9. Yamikotai

    Gotta smile at the name 'Rutherford Appleton', it's just so... twee :P

    1. Sir Runcible Spoon


      Wasn't he that guy on Firefly that tried to kill Mal with swhat?

    2. David Shone

      "Twee"? Certainly not!

      Most definitely not "twee" when you understand the origin of the name:

  10. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Star Power? FFS.

    Also, much as I want to see it and think it's probably closer than ever, fusion has been "A few years away" since the 40s when research started in the UK.

  11. LAGMonkey


    what deal was struck then? Am i being THAT dence?

    1. amanfromearth

      Yes you are. Correct spelling is "dense"

  12. Sir Runcible Spoon


    So, after reading this on another web site they just need a million pellets a day, oh - and to increase the compression by a factor of 1000 to achieve a self-sustaining reaction.

    Progress, but it's still years off.

    1. Michael H.F. Wilkinson

      I remember doing a project at school

      about fusion. The said it was just a decade or two (three on the outside) away. That was 1978. Still, lets hope someone get fusion going (and not in an H-bomb, please).

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        I suspect one of the biggest reasons for the constant time slip is that people who came up with the projections were scientists in the field that didn't understand that nobody with big money was interested in the technology, and they still aren't for the most part.

      2. Ken Hagan Gold badge

        Re: I remember

        If you replace "decade" with "decade of actual funding and anything above pitiful levels" and I think you'll find that all the promises (from the 1950s onwards) actually stand up.

        Even in 1978, when the memory of the oil shock was still fresh and Jimmy Carter had solar power shining out of his ass, politicians still didn't understand that it might be worth researching ways to exploit a proven source of almost limitless energy. (See icon.)

        And still, they have millions to spend on vanity projects like the millenium dome but nothing to spend on science.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward


          See, that's my problem with people who really push nuclear power. There's no such thing as limitless energy. There never has been and never will be.

          No matter what fuel we use to power our power plant we will eventually run low unless it's a renewable. You think greenhouse gasses are bad? Wait until we've been turning the oceans into helium to power fusion reactors all over the world for a few decades.

          1. Tim Spence

            Meh, we're all fooked eventually anyway - the universe will reach thermodynamic equilibrium eventually. It'll be damn cold, but I bet a man-made fusion plant still wouldn't have been achieved by then...


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