Jan 17, 2023
Nuclear Fusion: Inside the Breakthrough That Could Change our World Transcript
It could be a step toward a world in the distant future where fusion is a source of power. Read the transcript here.
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Speaker 1 (00:01):
Last month, the nearest star to the earth was in California in a laboratory for the first time, the world’s largest lasers forced atoms of hydrogen diffused together in the same kind of energy producing reaction that fires the sun. It lasted less than a billionth of a second, but after six decades of toil and failure, the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory proved it could be done. If fusion becomes commercial power one day, it would be endless and carbon free. In other words, it would change human destiny. As you’ll see, there’s far to go. But after December’s breakthrough, we were invited to tour the lab and meet the team that brought star power down to earth.
Speaker 2 (00:52):
The story will continue in a moment.
Speaker 1 (01:00):
Uncontrolled fusion is easy, mastered so long ago the films are in black and white. Fusion is what a hydrogen bomb does. Releasing energy by forcing atoms of hydrogen to fuse together. What’s been impossible is harnessing the fires of Armageddon into something useful. The US Department of Energy’s, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory helps maintain nuclear weapons and experiments with high energy physics. An hour east of San Francisco, we met Livermore’s Director, Kim Budil in the lab that made history, The National Ignition Facility.
Kim Budil (01:44):
The National Ignition Facility is the world’s largest, most energetic laser. It was built starting in the 1990s to create conditions in the laboratory that had previously only been accessible in the most extreme objects in the universe, like the center of giant planets or the sun, or in operating nuclear weapons. And the goal was to really be able to study that kind of very high energy, high density condition in a lot of detail.
Speaker 1 (02:10):
The National Ignition Facility, or NIF, was built for three and a half billion dollars to ignite self-sustaining fusion. They tried nearly 200 times over 13 years, but like a car with a weak battery, the atomic engine would never turn over. NIF drew some nicknames.
Kim Budil (02:32):
It did. For many years the Not Ignition Facility, the Never Ignition Facility, More Recently Than Nearly Ignition Facility. So this recent event has really put the ignition in the NIF.
Speaker 1 (02:45):
Ignition means igniting a fusion reaction that puts out more energy than the lasers put in.
Kim Budil (02:53):
So if you can get it hot enough, dense enough, fast enough, and hold it together long enough, the fusion reactions start to self sustain. And that’s really what happened here on December 5th.
Speaker 4 (03:03):
Main laser operation will begin in approximately one minute.
Speaker 1 (03:07):
Last month, the laser shot fired from this control room put two units of energy into the experiment. Atoms began fusing and about three units of energy came out. Tammy Ma, who leads the lab’s laser fusion research initiatives, got the call while waiting for a plane.
Tammy Ma (03:28):
And I burst into tears. It was just tears of joy and I actually physically started shaking and jumping up and down at the gate before everybody boarded. So everybody was like, “What is that crazy woman doing?”
Speaker 1 (03:43):
Tammy Ma is crazy about engineering.
Tammy Ma (03:46):
And that’s another one of our sensors for-
Speaker 1 (03:48):
She showed us why the problem of fusion would bring anyone to tears. First, there’s the energy required, which is delivered by lasers in these tubes that are longer than a football field. And how many are there altogether?
Tammy Ma (04:04):
192 total lasers.
Speaker 1 (04:07):
Each one of these lasers is one of the most energetic in the world, and you have 192 of them.
Tammy Ma (04:14):
That’s pretty cool, right?
Speaker 1 (04:15):
Well, pretty hot actually. Millions of degrees, which is why they use keys to lock up the lasers.
Speaker 6 (04:24):
Shot directed. Ready.
Speaker 1 (04:26):
The beams strike with a power 1000 times greater than the entire national power grid.
Speaker 6 (04:34):
Three, two, one, shot.
Speaker 1 (04:39):
Your lights don’t go out at home when they take a shot, because these capacitors store the electricity in the tubes the laser beams amplify by racing back and forth, and the flash is a fraction of a second.
Tammy Ma (04:53):
We have to get to these incredible conditions, hotter, denser than the center of the sun. And so we need all of that laser energy to get to these very high energy densities.
Speaker 1 (05:04):
All that wallop vaporizes a target nearly too small to see. Can I hold this thing?
Michael Staderman (05:11):
Absolutely. [inaudible 00:05:17]. There we go.
Speaker 1 (05:18):
Unbelievable. Absolutely amazing. Michael Staderman’s team builds the hollow target shells that are loaded with hydrogen at 430 degrees below zero.
Michael Staderman (05:34):
The precision that we need for making these shells is extreme. The shells are almost perfectly round. They have a roughness that is a hundred times better than a mirror.
Speaker 8 (05:43):
You think about that.
Speaker 1 (05:44):
If it wasn’t smoother than a mirror, imperfections would make the implosion of atoms uneven, causing a fusion fizzle. So these need to be as close to perfect as humanly possible?
Michael Staderman (05:59):
That’s right. That’s right. And we do think there are among the most perfect items that we have on earth.
Speaker 1 (06:04):
Staderman’s lab pursues perfection by vaporizing carbon and forming the shell out of diamond. They build 1,500 a year to make 150 nearly perfect.
Michael Staderman (06:17):
All the components are brought together under the microscope itself, and then the assembler uses electromechanical stages to put the parts where they’re supposed to go, move them together. And then we apply glue using a hair.
Speaker 1 (06:31):
Michael Staderman (06:31):
Yeah. Usually something like an eyelash or a similar, or a cat whisker.
Speaker 1 (06:35):
You apply glue with a cat whisker?
Michael Staderman (06:37):
Speaker 1 (06:41):
Why does it have to be so small?
Michael Staderman (06:43):
The laser gives us only a finite amount of energy, and to drive a bigger capsule, we would need more energy. So it’s a constraint of the facility that you’ve seen that is very large and despite its big size, this is about what we can drive with it.
Speaker 1 (06:56):
The target could be larger, but then the laser would have to be larger?
Michael Staderman (07:01):
That is correct.
Speaker 1 (07:05):
On December 5th, they used a thicker target, so it would hold its shape longer, and they figured out how to boost the power of the laser shot without damaging the lasers.
Tammy Ma (07:17):
So this is an example of a target before the shot.
Speaker 1 (07:21):
Tammy Ma showed us an intact target assembly. That diamond shell you saw is inside that silver colored cylinder. This assembly goes into a blue vacuum chamber three stories tall. It’s hard to see here, because it’s bristling with lasers and instruments. This instrument they call Dante, because they told us it measures the fires of hell. One physicist said, “You should see the target we blasted December 5th.” Which made us ask, could we? Have you seen this before?
Tammy Ma (08:00):
This is the first time I’m seeing it.
Speaker 1 (08:02):
For Tammy Ma and for the world this is the first look at what’s left of the target assembly that changed history. An artifact like Bell’s first phone or Edison’s light bulb. This thing is going to end up in the Smithsonian. The target cylinder was blasted to oblivion. The copper support that held it was peeled backward. The explosion on the end of this was hotter than the sun?
Tammy Ma (08:34):
It was hotter than the center of the sun. We were able to achieve temperatures that were the hottest in the entire solar system.
Speaker 1 (08:41):
Which would make an astronomical change in electric power. Unlike today’s nuclear plants, which split atoms apart, fusing them is many times more powerful with little long-term radiation and it’s easy to turn off, so no meltdowns. But getting from the first ignition to a power plant will be hard. How many shots do you take in a day?
Tammy Ma (09:09):
We take on average a little more than one shot per day.
Speaker 1 (09:13):
If this was theoretically a commercial power plant, how many shots a day would be required?
Tammy Ma (09:19):
Approximately 10 shots per second would be required. And the other big challenge, of course, is not just increasing the repetition rate, but also getting the gain out of the targets to go up to about a factor of a hundred.
Speaker 1 (09:35):
Not only would the reactions have to produce 100 times more energy, but a power plant would need 900,000 perfect diamond shells a day. Also, the lasers would have to be much more efficient. Remember December’s breakthrough put two units of energy in and got three out? Well, it took 300 units of power to fire the lasers. By that standard, it was 300 in, three out. That detail was not front and center at the Department of Energy’s December News conference, which fused the advance with an unlikely timeline.
Speaker 8 (10:18):
Today’s announcement is a huge step forward to the President’s goal of achieving commercial fusion within a decade.
Speaker 1 (10:29):
When you heard that President Biden’s goal was commercial fusion power in a decade, you thought what?
Charles Sife (10:37):
I thought it was nonsense.
Speaker 1 (10:38):
Charles Sife is a trained mathematician, science author and professor at New York University, who wrote a 2008 book on the hyping of fusion power.
Charles Sife (10:50):
I don’t want to diminish the fact that this is a real achievement. Ignition is a milestone that people have been trying to do for years. I’m afraid that there’s so many technical hurdles, even after this great achievement that 10 years is a pipe dream.
Speaker 1 (11:06):
Those hurdles, Sife says, include scaling up Livermore’s achievement. The December shot generated about enough excess power to boil two pots of coffee. The hurdles might be overcome, Sife says, but not soon.
Charles Sife (11:23):
I have a running bet going that we’re not going to have it by 2050.
Speaker 1 (11:28):
Still, betting against Charles Sife’s prophecy are more than 30 private companies designing various approaches to fusion power, including using magnets, not lasers. Three billion dollars in private money float into those companies in the last 13 months, including bets by Bill Gates and Google. Amid all this speculation, Lawrence Livermore’s director, Kim Budil is certain of one thing. Can you do it again?
Kim Budil (12:00):
Speaker 1 (12:02):
They’re going to try again next month. Budil agrees the obstacles are enormous, but she told us commercial fusion power could be demonstrated in 20 years or so with enough funding and dedication. We liken the first ignition to the first Wright Brothers flight, which covered only 120 feet.
Kim Budil (12:26):
It’s one thing to believe that the science is possible, that the conditions can be created. It’s another to see it in action, and it really is a remarkable feeling after working for 60 years to get to this point, to have first taken that first flight.
Speaker 12 (12:45):
Age of dream of flight-
Speaker 1 (12:46):
It was 44 years from a puddle jump to supersonic flight. Whether fusion power is 10 or 50 years away is now mainly an engineering problem. Lawrence Livermore has proven that from a machine a star is born.