Major nuclear fusion milestone: Scientists made a significant step toward ignition

Recreating the extreme temperatures and pressures found at the heart of the Sun.

A new experiment at the National Ignition Facility (NIF) at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in the US has successfully recreated the extreme temperatures and pressures of more than 1.3 megajoules (MJ) by triggering fusion ignition for the first time. This advancement puts scientists at the threshold of fusion ignition.

On August 2021, the experiment has produced the energy usually found at the heart of the Sun. Unlike any previous inertial confinement fusion experiment, this new experiment proves that ignition is possible. What’s more, it could lead to a reaction that generates more energy than they need to get started.

Co-director of the Centre for Inertial Fusion Studies at Imperial, Professor Jeremy Chittenden, said: “Demonstration of ignition has been a major scientific grand challenge since the idea was first published almost 50 years ago. It was the principal reason for the construction of NIF and has been its primary objective for over a decade.”

“After ten years of steady progress towards demonstrating ignition, the results of experiments over the last year have been more spectacular, as small improvements in the fusion energy output are strongly amplified by the ignition process. The pace of improvement in energy output has been rapid, suggesting we may soon reach more energy milestones, such as exceeding the energy input from the lasers used to kick-start the process.”

“This is crucial for opening up the promise of fusion energy and allowing physicists to probe the conditions in some of the most extreme states in the Universe, including those just minutes after the Big Bang. Controlled fusion in the Laboratory is one of the defining scientific grand challenges of this era, and this is a momentous step forward.”

Scientists experimented by focusing laser light from NIF on a target the size of a BB. This generated a hot spot the diameter of a human hair, generating more than 10 quadrillion watts of fusion power for 100 trillionths of a second.

Jill Hruby, the DOE undersecretary for Nuclear Security and NNSA administrator, said, “These extraordinary results from NIF advance the science that NNSA depends on to modernize our nuclear weapons and production as well as open new avenues of research.”

LLNL Director Kim Budil said, “This result is a historic step forward for inertial confinement fusion research, opening a fundamentally new regime for exploration and the advancement of our critical national security missions. It is also a testament to the innovation, ingenuity, commitment, and grit of this team and the many researchers in this field over the decades who have steadfastly pursued this goal.”

“For me, it demonstrates one of the most important roles of the national labs – our relentless commitment to tackling the biggest and most important scientific grand challenges and finding solutions where the obstacles might dissuade others.”

Mark Herrmann, LLNL’s deputy program director for Fundamental Weapons Physics, said“This significant advance was only made possible by the sustained support, dedication and hard work of a very large team over many decades, including those who have supported the effort at LLNL, industry and academic partners and our collaborators at Los Alamos National Laboratory and Sandia National Laboratories, the University of Rochester’s Laboratory for Laser Energetics and General Atomics.”

“This result builds on the work and successes of the entire team, including the people who pursued inertial confinement fusion from the earliest days of our Laboratory. They should also share in the excitement of this success.”

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