This U.S. Lab Just Hit a Nuclear Fusion Milestone

23 | By Michael A. Robinson

For decades, researchers have toiled away in the quest to provide nuclear power that is cheap, safe, and stable.

And for just as long, skeptics have said their work will never pay off.

But a team from Sandia National Labs has just hit a new milestone that is paving the way for a viable nuclear-fusion concept at last.

This breakthrough is crucial for two reasons.

First, U.S. environmental groups still largely oppose our current type of nuclear power. It’s based on nuclear fission – in which one atom inside a reactor gets split into two. Nuclear power plants use the resulting release of energy to warm water and produce steam to drive turbines.

But the nuclear accident in Japan after the earthquake and tsunami last year gave fresh ammo to global foes of fission-based power, who say it is patently unsafe. Indeed, two weeks ago, Japan said it would close all nuclear plants by the 2030s. Not only that, but here in the U.S., we face a lot of trouble getting rid of spent nuclear rods without hurting the environment.

Then there’s the terrorist threat. Some security experts warn that we can’t be certain terrorists will never take over a nuclear-power plant. If they did that, they could possibly destroy the plant or steal enough nuclear fuel to make a bomb.

Those two reasons alone have many scientists still hoping for a breakthrough that will make nuclear fusion work.

You see, in a fusion reactor, there’s no possibility of some catastrophic accident releasing destructive amounts of radioactivity. That’s because nuclear fusion can only take place in precisely controlled limits of temperature, pressure, and magnetic field. If the reactor sustained damage, those parameters would be disrupted, and it would immediately shut down.

And it gets better.

See, Earth already relies on fusion energy – that’s what powers the sun.

By using the same fuel the sun does, namely hydrogen, we would have enough raw material in our oceans to last us thousands, if not millions, of years. So if we could get “high-gain” fusion to work, we could get 1,000 times more power out than the energy supplied by the fuel.

But that’s the big problem facing this field. As of now, it still takes more power to get two atoms to fuse together than you get back out from the process. That means it isn’t economical. (Think of it as trying to line up several stars and use them to replace the sun.)

Now along comes Sandia and its new advance.

The lab has created a system in which controlled nuclear fusion could work at break-even or better within the next few years. The team says this has “extraordinary energy and defense implications.”

And to think – it all hinged on coming up with a new type of “liner“…

Themajor challenge for fusion research: finding a way to contain hot plasma – one hot enough to melt any container – long enough to get energy out.

In the experiments the team just completed, new beryllium liners remained reasonably intact and in the shape of a cylinder throughout the electromagnetic implosion.

In this process of implosion, the liners are hit with a huge magnetic field from Sandia’s Z machine. That’s the world strongest pulsed-power laser. Pulsed power refers to a type of tech that takes electrical energy and turns it into short pulses of huge power.

Had the liners suffered too much damage, the process would not have yielded enough atoms to get them to fuse. For fusion to truly work, these metal liners have to maintain their integrity while they implode from the force of all that energy.

Now you know why this latest advance could lead to an energy game changer.

This proof of concept proved vital for another big reason, too.

Sandia is working on a system it calls MagLIF. The platform will use magnetic field and laser pre-heating as part of the quest for realistic fusion power. Now, the team wants to build on their success with the new liners by testing the whole MagLIF concept as early as the end of next year.

We still have a lot of ground to cover to make fusion energy come true. But that’s the great thing about the Era of Radical Change. Researchers are pushing the boundaries of science every single day.

If just a fraction of all these new findings live up to their promise, we’re still looking at a very bright future indeed. Stay tuned.

23 Responses to This U.S. Lab Just Hit a Nuclear Fusion Milestone

  1. David says:

    This is like getting told that all that science fiction that I “wasted” my time on,was not so “far fetched”after all.Maybe todays Scientists had better review those old science books for “new”ideas.

  2. Robert in Canada says:

    You can bet that when fusion power plants become viable the enviro-groups will be making up scary stories to block development of fusion power plants.

    That’s what those groups do – make up scary stories to scare gullible people into donating money to them. Lots of money.

    Their business model works really well because fear is one of the greatest motivators.

    In the 1970′s they scared everyone about global cooling and they made millions from that scam.

    15 years ago they were 100% certain that by 2011 there would be huge floods and other disasters caused by global warming and almost all living things would be dying due to global warming.

    They have made and continue to make millions from the global warming scam.

    And governments figured out how to make easy money from the global warming scam too by charging businesses carbon taxes. Business passes that tax on to consumers by raising prices of goods and services. This makes business the bad guy while governments quietly collect the money.

  3. William Kirkey says:

    Please keep me abreast of any new tech that comes along or improves on the way we use atomic reaction for safe power production, with no hints of breakdown in the process such as meltdown or explosion.

    I have often wondered why graphite and it’s heat resistant/dispersal capabilities are not being studied for nuclear plants. It is a very good electrical conductor of electricity, has a very high melting point and from all my investigations, could prevent any future possibility of a meltdown from occurring.

    Scientists mostly agree that they could manufacture atomic fuel pellets/rods by combining U3o8 and processed large graphite flakes and this combination would ensure a much more complete burning of all the atomic material. There are several benefits from this duality, namely the large cost savings from a longer lasting and more complete burning of the mixed fuel material, and a much, much safer process.

    Add in the ever lower ability to find processable atomic fuel and the ever increasing number of atomic plants being construction right now and the hundreds more that are in the planning stages.

    Take Japan for instance, with the higher costs for natural gas and oil, in Asia, atomic power is by far the better and cheaper source of electricity for them, not withstanding their most recent meltdowns as a result of earthquakes and meltdowns from the tsunamies

    If you put out a daily or weekly newsletter, I would be pleased to be placed on the receiver list.

    Thank You

    William Kirkey

  4. frankinca says:

    Better fission systems are available that are self extinguishing when the cooling is lost. The main problem with fission is the waste and storage of the spent uranium until it becomes no longer a radiation hazard. The simple answer is to drop into an active volcano or rocket to the sun to assist the fission of the star. Please respond on the problems of doing these simple things.

  5. G.F. De Clerck says:

    In Britain they work alreqady for many years to c reate this Nuclear -fusion and they succeeded once to create this fusion , i remember, for about a part of a minute.
    Exist there no collaboration for it is asking huge amounts of money and the
    importance of this venture has no doubt serious consequences for our way of living, energy and defense as you mention.
    Keep us posted, it is an isue for us, investors, big and small.

  6. DarioC says:

    Check up on Fusors.

    I think the laser guys are barking up the wrong tree. Fusion happens from high velocity impacts between ions/atoms. You can get the velocity by heating up the material, which has all kinds of side effects and problems, or you can get it by just accelerating the the atoms as ions.

    Highschool kids and adult amateur experinmenters have produced fusion with homemade surplus lab equipment for years now. It doesn’t come even near “break even” levels, but neither do the massive professional projects.

    The pros have been collecting their big pay checks from DARPA et al for how long now and promising sucess within the next ten years with regularity. The laser thing is going nowhere.

    Electric field velocity in a gas/plasma is going to do the trick if anything does.


  7. George says:

    Italian Physicist Rossi has had a working fusion reactor for 2 years now. He based his method on the 1984 announcement of cold fusion in the US. Greece just stole the plans and made their own version. He is about to make home and small business models for home power generation. We are talking about 10$ a year power cost for typical home after initial cost to install the power system costing about 5k. Its got a 2.5 year ROI. Its based on nickel and hydrogen making copper. Where are you guys? Head in the sand?

  8. Sam says:

    I truly hope that the fusion process can be tamed. In the mean time, what’s the story on thorium reactors? Aren’t they safer than uranium reactors, creating “cleaner” spent fuel products?

      • Dave says:

        No they don’t produce nuclear bomb material. That’s why further research at Oak Ridge labs was halted in the early 70′s. To quote from a wikipedia entry on Thorium power and the stopping of that research “Uranium reactors had already been established, and Hyman Rickover, de facto head of the US nuclear program, wanted the plutonium from uranium-powered nuclear plants to make bombs.”

  9. Arthur Dorn says:

    LFTR nuke designs proven in 1965-1970 to be safe and CAN’T MELT DOWN………do your homework and stop waisting time and my money.
    Arthur Dorn
    Your retired system engineer and Korean Vet

  10. Ray Forthuber says:

    Forthcoming…after another 3 hours of reflection on the last 13.7 billion years of “the era of radical change”, I’ve scribbled a couple pages. Recently LIFE evolved on a tiny planet within a modest solar group interdependent upon a “parent” galaxy, etc. Gradually a unique species, homo-sapien, evolved.. totally dependent upon it’s earthly environment, including lots of other inter related but “competitive” life forms. Among the many organs comprising each individual “human” was an incredibly complex BRAIN coordinating everything inside each physical body. Pairs of microscopic cells joined in the pleasant act of reproduction and extracting sustenance from the surrounding elements, liquid, solid and gaseous (ex. water, earth and air). Surviving today we number about seven billion of our species with ever increasing longevity in spite of ever decreasing earthly natural resources upon which we are totally dependent to continue to exist, much less to multiply at compounding rates of consumption. All of human history consists of adaptation to CHANGE. That is THE constant. Our brains are the key component for our species’ comprehension, (collectively and cooperatively) of how this universe functions, from microscopic to macrosopic. We’re apparently naturally “addicted” to scientific curiosity about EVERYTHING, (visible and invisible) that our communicative brains can concieve of! We’re trying to define eternity and infinity through rigorous pursuit of “Science” by effective development of our unique brains’ incredible capacity to respond to every physical and intellectual challenge concieveable !! We cannot stop, EVER.

  11. Greg says:

    There is a very big obstacle to any form of cheap, widely available energy. It would drastically upset the balance of power in the current global economic, military, and political hierarchy. If such a development were able to be harnesses by anyone at low cost, it could shift the power away from where it is now centralized, into a broader more publicly available arena.

    This would not be welcomed with open arms by those why now control our energy resources and their associated costs. It’s all about control – control over people.

    For this reason I believe that humanity will never see any real benefit from the development of a new energy source that is very expensive and immensely complicated to implement. Any such technology would be throttled in such a way to keep it from being a liberating force for humanity.

    What is needed is an energy source that can constructed and utilized at a local level without billions of dollars work of laboratory equipment.

  12. S.I. Fishgal says:

    Environmental alarmists have no problem with 10,000 American nuclear bombs. Keeping nuclear waste in case terrorists would need it is okay too. So is using uranium, instead of much safer and cheaper thorium.

  13. Monica Marsico says:

    I like technology but sometimes it seams to harm us and people miss use it or use it against you.

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