“Just another guy with a blog.  No big whoop.”

February 16, 2009

A Star Is Born

I sure hope these scientists know what they're doing. I have no doubt that some seriously smart people are working on this project aimed at generating a mini "star" within a laboratory in California. It's just that making something — inside a building — that burns at temperatures in excess of 100 million degrees seems kind of chancey to me.

I mean, what kind of material do you use to construct the room/chamber/device that will contain a 100-million degree object? And why can't we build our space shuttles out of that? I'm all in favor of finding new energy sources, and if this is a good and viable option, then let's get it going. But what if it gets out of hand? 

While it has seemed an impossible goal for nearly 100 years, scientists now believe that they are on brink of cracking one of the biggest problems in physics by harnessing the power of nuclear fusion, the reaction that burns at the heart of the sun.

In the spring, a team will begin attempts to ignite a tiny man-made star inside a laboratory and trigger a thermonuclear reaction.

Its goal is to generate temperatures of more than 100 million degrees Celsius and pressures billions of times higher than those found anywhere else on earth, from a speck of fuel little bigger than a pinhead. If successful, the experiment will mark the first step towards building a practical nuclear fusion power station and a source of almost limitless energy.

At a time when fossil fuel supplies are dwindling and fears about global warming are forcing governments to seek clean energy sources, fusion could provide the answer. Hydrogen, the fuel needed for fusion reactions, is among the most abundant in the universe. Building work on the £1.2 billion nuclear fusion experiment is due to be completed in spring.

Scientists at the National Ignition Facility (NIF) in Livermore, nestled among the wine-producing vineyards of central California, will use a laser that concentrates 1,000 times the electric generating power of the United States into a billionth of a second.

The result should be an explosion in the 32ft-wide reaction chamber which will produce at least 10 times the amount of energy used to create it. "We are creating the conditions that exist inside the sun," said Ed Moses, director of the facility. "It is like tapping into the real solar energy as fusion is the source of all energy in the world. It is really exciting physics, but beyond that there are huge social, economic and global problems that it can help to solve."

Inside a structure covering an area the size of three football pitches, a single infrared laser will be sent through almost a mile of lenses, mirrors and amplifiers to create a beam more than 10 billion times more powerful than a household light bulb.

Housed within a hanger-sized room that has to be pumped clear of dust to prevent impurities getting into the beam, the laser will then be split into 192 separate beams, converted into ultraviolet light and focused into a capsule at the centre of an aluminium and concrete-coated target chamber.

When the laser beams hit the inside of the capsule, they should generate high-energy X-rays that, within a few billionths of a second, compress the fuel pellet inside until its outer shell blows off.

This explosion of the fuel pellet shell produces an equal and opposite reaction that compresses the fuel itself together until nuclear fusion begins, releasing vast amounts of energy.

Scientists have been attempting to harness nuclear fusion since Albert Einstein’s equation E=mc², which he derived in 1905, raised the possibility that fusing atoms together could release tremendous amounts of energy.

Under Einstein’s theory, the amount of energy locked up in one gram of matter is enough to power 28,500 100-watt lightbulbs for a year.

Until now, such fusion has only been possible inside nuclear weapons and highly unstable plasmas created in incredibly strong magnetic fields. The work at Livermore could change all this.

The sense of excitement at the facility is clear. In the city itself, people on the street are speaking about the experiment and what it could bring them. Until now Livermore has had only the dubious honour of being home of the US government’s nuclear weapons research laboratories which are on the same site as the NIF.

Inside the facility, the scientists are impatient. After 11 years of development work, they want the last of the lenses and mirrors for the laser to be put in place and the tedious task of adjusting and aiming the laser to be over, a process they fear could take up to a year before they can successfully achieve fusion.

Jeff Wisoff, a former astronaut who is deputy principal associate director of science at the NIF, said: "Everyone is keen to get started, but we have to get the targeting right, otherwise it won’t work. "We will be firing laser pulses that last just a few billionths of a second but we will be creating conditions that are found in the interior of stars or exploding nuclear weapons. (read article)


  1. It's not so chancey considering how hard it is to sustain a fusion reaction. Fission reactions occur easily with the right elements which naturally break down. Fusion on the other hand requires a huge amount of energy to start and then a constant supply of fuel to retain. Stars only form because of the heat generated by the gravitational collapse of a huge amount of hydrogen gas over a very long time. We've been able to start fusion reactions in the past but they've only lasted milliseconds.

    As for the material there is no known material that can withstand 120 million kelvin. However the massive heat is contained in super strong magnetic fields that shield the containers from the full force of the energy. I would imagine they've designed the system to cut off fuel and shut down if something goes wrong. The only fission station to ever melt down in the past 60 years was Chernobyl and that wasn't a failure of it's design so much as utter neglect.

  2. Calculating the energy released from atoms and providing a margin for safety for it is actually pretty straightforward physics. I'd be more concerned with the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) in Switzerland. That has the potential of creating mini-blackholes where physics as we know it ceases to exist. What if the mini black-hole starts self-sustaining itself and continues to grow? How would we stop it? More here..

  3. This is a better bet:

    Bussard's IEC Fusion Technology (Polywell Fusion) Explained
    Why hasn't Polywell Fusion been funded by the Obama administration?

  4. I was only aware of the "unstable plasmas" contained withing magnetic fields and that seemed safe enough.

    I don't see a problem with this different approach so long as they've got the proper ways of controlling this energy. I wonder what they use for shielding though.

    It seems magnetic fields are the way to go though. It's what keeps our Earth from becoming Mars, it keeps some fusion experiments in check... so maybe instead of a "material" it'll be a "force field" of sorts. Cool stuff.

  5. Hey, I already saw that movie. It was Spider-Man II