Forgot your password?
typodupeerror
Power Science Technology

Fusion "Breakthrough" At National Ignition Facility? Not So Fast 118

Posted by samzenpus
from the take-another-look dept.
sciencehabit writes "One unintended effect of the U.S. federal shutdown is that helpful press officers at government labs are not available to provide a reality check to some of the wilder stories that can catch fire on the Internet. They would have come in handy this week, when a number of outlets jumped on a report on the BBC News website. The National Ignition Facility (NIF) at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, it reported, had passed a 'nuclear fusion milestone.' NIF uses the world's highest energy laser system to crush tiny pellets containing a form of hydrogen fuel to enormous temperature and pressure. The aim is to get the hydrogen nuclei to fuse together into helium atoms, releasing energy. The BBC story reported that during one experiment last month, 'the amount of energy released through the fusion reaction exceeded the amount of energy being absorbed by the fuel — the first time this had been achieved at any fusion facility in the world.' This prompted a rush of even more effusive headlines proclaiming the 'fusion breakthrough.' As no doubt NIF's press officers would have told reporters, the experiment in question certainly shows important progress, but it is not the breakthrough everyone is hoping for."
This discussion has been archived. No new comments can be posted.

Fusion "Breakthrough" At National Ignition Facility? Not So Fast

Comments Filter:
  • by toygeek (473120) on Thursday October 10, 2013 @08:01PM (#45097491) Homepage Journal

    Blowing things out of proportion and bad reporting? Say it isn't so!

    • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday October 10, 2013 @08:07PM (#45097527)
      But the 3D printing stories and private space fantasies are still safe, right?
    • by Geoffrey.landis (926948) on Thursday October 10, 2013 @08:12PM (#45097541) Homepage

      There's a good discussion by Jeff Hecht in the Laser Focus World blog: "Progress at NIF, but no 'breakthrough'"
      http://www.laserfocusworld.com/articles/2013/10/progress-at-nif-but-no-breakthrough.html [laserfocusworld.com]

      The amount of energy generated by fusion is quoted as having exceeded the amount of energy absorbed by the fusion fuel [my italics].

      The misleading part comes from the fact that the target absorbs only a small fraction of the energy in the laser pulse. The August experiments used a laser pulse of 1.7 million joules to generate 8000 joules of fusion energy (measured from neutron yield). So the fusion energy amounts to a few percent of the energy in the laser pulse (and much less if you account for the inefficiency of the laser).

      • by illestov (945762)
        stupid question, but isn't the energy released from a fusion reaction ALWAYS larger than the energy absorbed? I thought that was in the definition somewhere
        • Isn't the energy released from a fusion reaction ALWAYS larger than the energy absorbed?

          In the case of lightweight elements, the energy released by two fusing nuclei is less than the kinetic energy smashing them together, but only a small fraction of the nuclei in a pellet fuse, and most of the energy absorbed by the pellet goes into heating and ionizing the atoms that don't undergo fusion.

      • by fnj (64210)

        a few percent of the energy

        Funny, I make it 0.47% (8000/1700000*100). I figured this out from the original submission a few days ago using no more than maybe 10 minutes checking of secondary sources.

        • yeah, comes from hasty editing and no "oops, I need to revise that" button. Should have been "few tenths of a percent." sorry.

      • by catmistake (814204) on Friday October 11, 2013 @03:42AM (#45099247) Journal

        So the fusion energy amounts to a few percent of the energy in the laser pulse (and much less if you account for the inefficiency of the laser).

        The estimates become even more dubious when you account for all the energy expended training, feeding and housing the sharks.

    • Quote the BBC article:

      "This is a step short of the lab's stated goal of "ignition", where nuclear fusion generates as much energy as the lasers supply. This is because known "inefficiencies" in different parts of the system mean not all the energy supplied through the laser is delivered to the fuel."

      The article made it CLEAR that the energy output was more than the energy absorbed. But it also made it CLEAR that it was not as much energy as was input to the whole system.

      This is a non-article about a non-issue.

      HEADLINE: "People Read Article Wrong... Chaos Ensues!"

  • by phantomfive (622387) on Thursday October 10, 2013 @08:02PM (#45097493) Journal

    not the breakthrough everyone is hoping for.

    The breakthrough I'm hoping for is cheap free fusion energy, generated in my backyard, from trash, branded "Mr Fusion."

    What is everyone else hoping for?

    • I'm hoping you don't need the whole 1.21 Gigawatts and can share with me. My backyard's a bit small.
    • Cheap Solar Panels!
    • Mr Fusion was based on the 1980s era kitchen appliance brand Mr Coffee

      This is 2013 so we would have to call it the Keurig Fusion

  • So it was not more than break-even. The gain was actually 0.0077 - 1.8MJ in, 14kJ out. Just a small (i.e. about "1") mistake by the genius journalists.

    • by _merlin (160982)

      Yeah, the thing seems horribly overhyped, and it still doesn't seem to be showing the kind of results already achieved with tokamaks, e.g. JET producing 5MW to 16MW fusion output power from 24MW input power for 5s. Why is the US so interested in the laser-pumped fusion approach used at NIF? UK gave up on it ages ago. There's got to be some motivation other than power generation technology. Is NIF more suitable for weapons research or something?

      • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

        by Anonymous Coward

        JET producing 5MW to 16MW fusion output power from 24MW input power for 5s

        Even better is JT-60 has produced DD plasmas at conditions that would produce fusion power 110% more than what goes in if they had they run with DT plasma instead.

      • by gman003 (1693318) on Thursday October 10, 2013 @09:30PM (#45097857)

        Yes, most of what the NIF does is actually weapons research. The fusion power stuff seems to be mainly a political ploy to get the Democrats to sign off on it - they're never going to get actual fusion power, meaning actually turning this power back into electricity, at NIF, and unless they know something big I don't, I doubt they ever will at any inertial confinement reactor. I only hope that they're able to do some solid fundamental research for fusion power using this.

        • by jambox (1015589)
          IANAP and I don't really know what I'm talking about, but even mainstream news makes the point that it's about studying ignition, which is useful to both energy and weapons research. It'll be interesting to see how much use ITER get out of NIF's work.
      • Yeah, the thing seems horribly overhyped, and it still doesn't seem to be showing the kind of results already achieved with tokamaks, e.g. JET producing 5MW to 16MW fusion output power from 24MW input power for 5s. Why is the US so interested in the laser-pumped fusion approach used at NIF? UK gave up on it ages ago. There's got to be some motivation other than power generation technology. Is NIF more suitable for weapons research or something?

        My guess is you're being very perceptive and this approach is about weaponization, not power production per se.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday October 10, 2013 @08:28PM (#45097613)

    actually the BBC's story reports correctly -
    "The BBC understands that during an experiment in late September, the amount of energy released through the fusion reaction exceeded the amount of energy being absorbed by the fuel - the first time this had been achieved at any fusion facility in the world.

    This is a step short of the lab's stated goal of "ignition", where nuclear fusion generates as much energy as the lasers supply. This is because known "inefficiencies" in different parts of the system mean not all the energy supplied through the laser is delivered to the fuel."

  • Not there yet! (Score:5, Informative)

    by FoolishBluntman (880780) on Thursday October 10, 2013 @08:41PM (#45097689)
    The headline states, "the amount of energy released through the fusion reaction exceeded the amount of energy being absorbed by the fuel".

    This is not enough, they must be able to capture that energy and use it to produce the next laser implosion of the fuel.
    That will be a milestone.

    Also, since this is using a Deuterium-Tritium Fuel it produces very high energy neutrons which will help destroy the reactor much faster than in conventional fission reactions.
    • by rmstar (114746)

      This is not enough, they must be able to capture that energy and use it to produce the next laser implosion of the fuel.
      That will be a milestone.

      I've heard it looks like a pie,
      and floats high up in the sky.

  • Something good happens in science and all the neckbeards come running to shout it down.

    Sometimes I wonder why science is a religion for these people since they obviously have some kind of emotional need to destroy what it produces?

    • Science is wrong by definition, most of the "neckbeards" I've met understand that but are unlikely to express it as eloquently as Asimov [tufts.edu]. Skepticism is a fundamental skill for scientists and engineers alike, sensationalism is a fundamental skill for journalists and professional propagandists...err, I mean,...lobbyists. If you can't tell the difference then you really should hand in that vintage geek card you have on display.
    • by Valdrax (32670)

      Sometimes I wonder why science is a religion for these people since they obviously have some kind of emotional need to destroy what it produces?

      Same reason that many religious people do the same -- to prove they're "better" at it and satisfy their own ego, regardless of what their own faith supposedly teaches them.

  • by Goldsmith (561202) on Thursday October 10, 2013 @09:15PM (#45097805)

    I don't know if NIF is snakebit or just really good at putting out bad information, but this kind of distasteful and misleading marketing of science has been associated with them since their beginning. AAAS is being generous in assuming that their press department would have stepped in and clarified things.

    The truth of the matter is that NIF is run by Lawrence Livermore National Security Corporation, a private group formed by defense contractors and academics. They're managed this way specifically to separate themselves from the government. There are plenty of people who are not on the government payroll, who are there working right now, who could have stepped in and corrected everyone's misconceptions. They chose not to.

    • It is primarily funded by the United States Department of Energy (DOE) and managed and operated by Lawrence Livermore National Security, LLC (LLNS), a partnership of the University of California, Bechtel, Babcock & Wilcox, URS, and Battelle Memorial Institute in affiliation with the Texas A&M University System.

      Either Wikipedia is wrong, or you are, and I think you know which way I'm leaning right now. What defense contractors are involved with LLNS?

      • by khallow (566160)
        I see several right there: Bechtel, U of C, Babcock and Wilcox, URS, Texas A&M. And the DOE does a lot of work for the DOD, though I wouldn't consider them a contractor.
        • U of C and Texas A&M definitely aren't defense contractors. They're academic institutions.

          As far as I can tell: URS is a general contractor with interests in energy production. Bechtel is a company with a focus on energy production, and specialization in nuclear power. B&W is specialized heavily into nuclear power. All are government contractors for very specialized tasks within their respective fields, all of which include nuclear power, and I don't see how that has any bearing on their interest in

          • by khallow (566160)

            U of C and Texas A&M definitely aren't defense contractors. They're academic institutions.

            They are both. Academic institutions often do work for various government agencies. And while it's a bit circular, the LLNL is one of the ways they're involved.

            As far as I can tell: URS is a general contractor with interests in energy production. Bechtel is a company with a focus on energy production, and specialization in nuclear power. B&W is specialized heavily into nuclear power. All are government contractors for very specialized tasks within their respective fields, all of which include nuclear power, and I don't see how that has any bearing on their interest in LLNL.

            Where are you going with that? I merely noted that there were a bunch of DoD contractors on that list.

  • Because the staff and management are contractors, not Fed employees, LLNL is not shut down. The Lab will begin shutting down next week (assuming the budget boondoggle continues), but until now has been fully staffed with the exception of a very small number of people directly employed by DOE.

  • I suppose one of the biggest advantages is that suppression of scientific advancement and the press would be a bit hard to perform at the moment.
  • by Anonymous Coward

    I thought the government was shut down. If that is so, why is this government lab still operating? Is someone trying to convince the rest of us that sending a press "officer" home but keeping everyone else on the job is a "shutdown"? I suppose if the government can lie about whether or not it is operating, it can lie about achieving scientific breakthroughs.

    • Many (all?) of the labs are contracted by the the government through other organizations. For example SLAC where I work is administered by Stanford University under contract with the Department of Energy. We are not shut down yet, but presumably will be soon if the government shutdown continues. We are under various restrictions to only do critical work, so, for example, the SLAC Today publication that reports on our work is not operating.

    • the government is not shut down

  • We can't blame the network that brings us Dr Who for shoddy reporting, so lets blame the Americans and their shutdown.
  • Was that the original news post had a sensational title, but nowhere in the story, nor any of the links were ANY details about the numbers used in the experiment, specifically about exactly how much power was put in, and how much came out.

    It is pretty basic stuff.

    I either thought is must be BS or the value were unrealistic to be used in anything but in an experiment (so small as to make it impossible in real scale).

All life evolves by the differential survival of replicating entities. -- Dawkins

Working...