back to article US fusion energy dreams edge closer to reality, Congress permitting

To say 2023 was a big year in the world of fusion research would be an understatement. After achieving fusion ignition in late 2022, scientists at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory's (LLNL) National Ignition Facility (NIF) in California repeated the feat in late July, and then twice again in recent months, bringing to …

  1. StudeJeff

    Only twenty years..

    This sounds promising, but it sounds like practical fusion power is still about 20 years away...

    ...as it has been for the past 40 years.

    1. hammarbtyp

      Re: Only twenty years..

      No. The laser based system is a dead end in terms of power generation. It is not designed to be a practical power station, it is purely a research tool. No one is planning to make a laser based power station in the next 10, 15, 30 or ever

      1. Spherical Cow Silver badge

        Re: Only twenty years..

        Agreed. We need a system which can feed fuel in continuously (rapid pulses are ok) and harvest the energy continuously. One idea is using an electrical dense plasma focus with hydrogen-boron-11 which could work in theory, but development progress is painfully slow and I'm not yet convinced it will ever reach commercial reality.

    2. Nonymous Crowd Nerd

      Re: Only twenty years..

      "as it has been for the past 40 years.

      I think it might be more like 50 (fifty) years.

      And with the cost of the mundane renewables (wind and solar) dropping fast it's actually getting to be too late for fusion ever to be a compelling option now.

      1. Bearshark

        Re: Only twenty years..

        I've pretty much lost all hope for Science at this point. Science has been politicized for decades now. Sure fusion energy sounds fantastic... 20+ years from now. The reason why I'm bitter toward the Sciences these days is because we could have been using small fission reactors everywhere by now, but politically this never happened. We've had nuclear submarines since 1958 that can run indefinitely, yet there is no terrestrial nuclear power implemented at a small scale to supply power to neighborhoods. Nuclear power is very safe. The waste isn't an issue like politicians want you to think.

        1. LionelB Silver badge

          Re: Only twenty years..

          > The reason why I'm bitter toward the Sciences these days is because we could have been using small fission reactors everywhere by now, but politically this never happened.

          Um, obvious point, but shouldn't you rather be bitter towards the politicians (and also short-sighted business leaders) then? Scientists do what they can within the constraints of available funding. Science funding is ultimately politically and/or commercially driven.

          Also, waste may not be an issue "like politicians want you to think" (well, some politicians anyway), but it is an issue — and one that needs to be addressed realistically. This will, of course, require serious funding...

  2. Mike 137 Silver badge

    Step back a minute

    A joule is one watt second, so one kWh is 3.6 megajoules. The lasers output 89.4 kWh to deliver 875 Wh of fusion power. That's approx. 0.978% efficiency, and that's excluding the laser efficiency (which is not quoted) and the efficiency of converting the fusion heat to usable power (e.g. leccy) so it's probably a lot less efficient end to end. So nice science but we're still a long way from commercial fusion power stations.

    1. diodesign (Written by Reg staff) Silver badge

      Re: Step back a minute

      Yeah, the article does say that the efficiency is about 1%. OTOH the first fission piles/reactors weren't that spectacular, so I see this as more baby steps to production.

      BTW imploding hydrogen isotope fuel capsules with x-rays (and ablation) has been around since the 1940s/50s, though not with practical power generation in mind...

      C.

      1. Ian Johnston Silver badge

        Re: Step back a minute

        On the other other hand, the first fission piles worked continuously, right off. Not "We achieved fission for a couple of seconds1 and we hope to do it again later this year" which is more-or-less where fusion is.

        1Yes, achieving fission for a tiny fraction of a second was a desired outcome, but in a rather different context

      2. Zolko Silver badge

        Re: Step back a minute

        the efficiency is about 1% ...

        ... if you exclude the amount of energy that was necessary to produce the target itself. Which is destroyed and must be produced for each "run". They don't grow on trees, do they ? So no, this is no baby step towards industrial energy production at all, it's a lab curiosity. Funny, but not more.

      3. Mike 137 Silver badge

        Re: Step back a minute

        " the article does say that the efficiency is about 1%"

        The laser efficiency I'm speaking of is light power out versus the electrical power to drive the laser. As far as I can see that isn't quoted, but it must be taken into account, and in my experience of lasers (admittedly a couple of decades old) it's quite low. The acid test of practicability is the efficiency of the entire end to end system from electrical power in to electrical power out.

  3. Androgynous Cupboard Silver badge

    "It's never been about fusion energy." is an actual quote from the article, but you've managed to wrap it in claims this is great for fusion energy - starting with the headline. As I understand it, laser ignition as practiced at LLNL is almost entirely unrelated to the kind of magnetically-controlled plasma being explored in fusion energy prototypes, no?

    1. cyberdemon Silver badge
      Holmes

      "It's never been about fusion energy."

      So what is it about then?

      Perhaps it could serve as a high-intensity neutron source for sub-critical fission? But then I would have thought an accelerator-driven source (e.g. ESS) would be a lot easier.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: "It's never been about fusion energy."

        They said it, it just doesn't konk you over the head with it.

        The US nuclear research has two main customers. They don't talk about the DoD side much, by definition, but it is elephant in the room. They also probably don't publish many journal papers on the results from that side of the house. So while the DoD may be the most interested party in the ignition labs findings, the money (still from the government) comes out of a different budget. Same for the Z-machine that was all the rage a few years ago. So we have expensive machines modeling the physics of masses of electrons, photons, and various ways to model what happens constantly on the sun, and occasionally here for very, very, short bursts.

        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Castle_Bravo (SHRIMP)

        Big surprise we are doing expensive fusion experiments that validate the computational physics models the DoD uses to model the (currently being refreshed at eye watering cost) strategic nuclear deterrent. This really isn't that big of a problem as far as the budgets are concerned, and the research still helps the teams ACTUALLY trying to work towards a viable reactor in your lifetimes(I am betting I will miss this one, you might be luckier if you have a few more years left on the clock than I do).

  4. Arthur the cat Silver badge
    Joke

    We've already got a working fusion system

    Big thing, if a little distant. Cheers people up when they get a chance to see it. (Definitely not today where I am.) Reduces the need for vitamin D supplements.

    1. pdh

      Re: We've already got a working fusion system

      Ssssshhhhhh... if people realized that we're close enough to a runaway nuclear fusion reactor which is so intense that it can cause skin burns, cancer, and blindness, there would be panic in the streets...

  5. nautica Silver badge
    Holmes

    "We've already got a working fusion system"

    Don't know why you chose the "Joke Alert" icon, but hey...it's your comment.

    The only 'joke' is on the those who actually believe that--and are conned into funding--our pathway to 'green energy' (this whole discussion, like 'Quantum Computing', is founded and built strictly on buzzwords) lies in our ability to actually build a contained, CONTINUOUSLY WORKING, miniature sun here ON EARTH.

    Strange, but the only stars I ever learned of are in outer space (yes; 93 million miles does qualify), separated by great distances--as in light-years--from other of their brethren.

    There's got to be a fundamental-physics reason why the separation between these fusion machines is so enormous...but we're going to build one right here on earth.

    I'll keep my money in my pocket, thank you very much.

    1. FIA Silver badge

      There's got to be a fundamental-physics reason why the separation between these fusion machines is so enormous

      In general, it isn't. We're unusual.

      ...but we're going to build one right here on earth.

      We're not building a star on earth, just a small subsection of one.

      You seem concerned by this?

      Remember, you're (technically) hotter than the sun, there's just not as much of you.

      A well built coal forge can get to 3000 degrees C, the surface of the sun is around 5,600. This thing will create temperatures of 2 to 3 billion degrees C.

      1. nautica Silver badge
        Holmes

        I'm glad we've finally found an expert on this subject to clear things up...

        "...We're not building a star on earth, just a small subsection of one. You seem concerned by this?..."

        The only thing that concerns me is when people try to display their (non-existent) erudition of a subject by obfuscation and diversion. One example of this type activity might be the appeal to hyperlinks which add nothing to the highly scientific and technical questions and issues to hand.

        You could start convincing us of your technical and academic prowess (one must assume, at the very least, post-doc experience in astrophysics on your part) on this subject by enlightening us as to which particular SUBSECTION of a star the 'fusion experts' are aiming to build. Please be very specific as to the particular "...small subsection of..." a star you refer.

        While the previous comment provided entertainment, be assured that we are all awaiting serious scientific enlightenment from you.

        1. Androgynous Cupboard Silver badge

          Re: I'm glad we've finally found an expert on this subject to clear things up...

          > The only thing that concerns me is when people try to display their (non-existent) erudition of a subject by obfuscation and diversion.

          > You could start convincing us of your technical and academic prowess (one must assume, at the very least, post-doc experience in astrophysics on your part)

          My irony meter can't take much more of this. Please, enough.

        2. FIA Silver badge

          Re: I'm glad we've finally found an expert on this subject to clear things up...

          You could start convincing us of your technical and academic prowess (one must assume, at the very least, post-doc experience in astrophysics on your part)

          I have no such expertise, but I suggest neither do you. ;)

          But as the process of nuclear fusion is basically GCSE/A-level physics (which I do have) I'll try.... (NB: Building a fusion reactor most certainly isn't, but the basic principle is smash two hydrogen atoms together to get a helium atom and some energy, the physics and calculations for the energy released are A-level, erm, level).

          on this subject by enlightening us as to which particular SUBSECTION of a star the 'fusion experts' are aiming to build. Please be very specific as to the particular "...small subsection of..." a star you refer.

          The core of a G type star (like our Sun) has hydrogen atoms fusing to release energy and helium, this occurs due to the gravity from the star squashing the atoms so closely and imparting enough energy that they spontaneously fuse, ie. the star has reached critical mass where a chain reaction can start and continue.

          You can do this on Earth, there was a popular film about it last year1, but it tends to end badly for anyone nearby.

          The other option is to use magnetic constriction to create the same pressures in a plasma so the same thing happens. This is how tokamak reactors work, and as there's more of these springing up it seems to be the best approach? (The SPARC reactor from commonwealth fusion seems interesting, their fancy new magnets sound like they could really help things along).

          Now as earth is much smaller than the sun[citation needed] but the exact same physical process is happening I'm happy to stand by my 'subsection of a star', specifically the hot high pressure hydrogen plasma bit.

          You should really watch this documentary on it all, it's a bit old now, but very interesting. Also, the guy who presents it has a post doc in partical physics, which I assume will satisfy?

          Oh, I'd argue we don't have any 'fusion experts' yet, but we have some very clever people that will hopefully one day become them.

          1 Okay, technically the film wasn't about a thermonuclear device, so no smushing of hydrogen, but you get my point...

        3. FIA Silver badge

          Re: I'm glad we've finally found an expert on this subject to clear things up...

          The only thing that concerns me is when people try to display their (non-existent) erudition of a subject by obfuscation and diversion.

          Sure, I hear you, it's like when people break out the big words. ;)

          Like the One example of this type activity might be the appeal to hyperlinks which add nothing to the highly scientific and technical questions and issues to hand.

          Or that too, yes. (Well, I have read 'of [using] hyperlinks' rather than 'to hyperlinks' as I'm not making a request to a link).

          However I'm not sure what you mean here? The first link I used was related to one of these 'highly scientific and technical' issues you raised in your first post, which after all is what I was replying to.

          To quote (emphasis mine):

          Strange, but the only stars I ever learned of are in outer space (yes; 93 million miles does qualify), separated by great distances--as in light-years--from other of their brethren.

          From the first link I used:

          "Are binary stars rare?

          No. It is estimated that around 85% of stars exist in binary star systems or systems with three or more stars."

          So, 85% of stars aren't separated by light years. Astronomically, most starts are close to other stars.

          As for the other links, I will confess to inferring you seemed troubled by the attempts to create fusion on earth, and then addressing that. If that's not true then they are largely confusing, I apologise.

    2. Arthur the cat Silver badge

      the only stars I ever learned of are in outer space

      Call me prejudiced if you will, but I wouldn't want even a small M type star as a next door neighbour. Things could so easily get overheated.

  6. ldo

    30 Years Away?

    I recall a YouTube video by the ever-dependable Sabine Hossenfelder, discussing how proponents of fusion like to quote energy efficiencies without taking the energy inputs to the entire system into account. However, I noticed that the graph she drew, showing progress (or lack of it) over the last few decades, would actually be steeper if you did include whole-system energy input. Which means the old joke about fusion always being “30 years away” might finally be laid to rest; we could have something workable, by my (totally amateurish) guess, within a decade.

    1. FIA Silver badge

      Re: 30 Years Away?

      Prof Brian Cox did a documentary about fusion a good few years ago now, covered the various different approaches.

      The one takeaway from it for me was how little we spend on it, compared to everything else.

      That's the real problem.

  7. codejunky Silver badge

    erm

    "If Congress eventually manages to fund the government" ... "So keep an eye open for more breakthroughs in 2024 – provided Congress gets its act together"

    Funding the government is a legitimate problem. Some governments are doing very well at blowing far more money than their tax payers can afford and considering it normal. Research including this is conducted by allocating finite resources.

  8. Xalran

    Something Important To Remember

    Something Important to Remember about the energy involved...

    The Energy Generated is more than the Energy Delivered to generate said Energy Generated....

    It's not the Energy Used to create the x-ray beam that delivered the Energy Delivered.

    The Energy Used is still several factor higher than the Energy Generated.

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