The U.S. fusion power industry last month received a positive and a negative jolt from the news. On the plus side, laser technology continues to move along the path toward ignition with promising results from tests that lasted slightly longer than a nanosecond. On the negative side, the newly proposed 2013 federal budget cuts the funding for one of the country's three experimental magnetic-fusion facilities.
On March 15, technicians at the National Ignition Facility (NIF) at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory moved a step closer to achieving fusion ignition and energy gain in a lab setting when its 192 beams delivered a record 1.875 million joules (MJ) of ultraviolet laser light to the facility's target chamber center in Livermore, Calif.
According to Edward Moses, NIF's director, this record-breaking shot involved a shaped pulse of energy 23 billionths of a second long that generated 411 trillion watts of peak power. The NIF's goal is to legitimize laser fusion as a viable energy source by producing more energy than it takes to produce.
The next step in the development of "laser inertial fusion energy" (LIFE) will be the construction of demonstration powerplants that are capable of generating hundreds of megawatts of electricity using all the required technologies for a power rollout. An NIF spokesman says this step could be years away. The sequence will be determined by the lab's owner, the National Nuclear Security Agency.
Funding appears to be an issue for domestic magnetic, or "Tokamak," fusion-power experimental facilities. (The word "Tokamak" is a Russian acronym for a device that uses a magnetic field to confine plasma in a donut shape.) When the U.S. joined the European Union, China, Russia, South Korea and India to build the $20-billion International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) in Cadarache, France, the U.S. Dept. of Energy trimmed its domestic fusion budget. The U.S. contributed $105 million to ITER this fiscal year and plans on providing $150 million next fiscal year. The extra money would come from the Alcator C-Mod facility closure at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge.
C-Mod is one three fusion facilities in the U.S. The other two are the DIII-D at General Atomics in San Diego and the National Spherical Torus Experiment at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory in Princeton, N.J. While it has been argued for years whether laser or Tokamak technology should be the preferred fusion power provider in the U.S., magnetic has been getting most of the attention and funding. A recent report by the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences, however, gives credence to LIFE and says more research is needed to find the best source for the powerplant demonstration phase.