Inside breakthrough nuclear fusion may be a step into unlimited clean energy in the distant future

Last month, the star closest to Earth was in California. In the laboratory, for the first time, the world’s largest laser forced hydrogen atoms to fuse together into the same kind of energy produced by the reaction that launches the sun. It lasted less than a billionth of a second. But after six decades of toil and failure, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory has proven that it can be done. If fusion becomes a business force one day, it will be borderless and carbon-neutral. In other words, it will change the fate of a person. As you will see, there is a lot to go. But after the December breakthrough, we were invited to tour the lab and meet the team that brought star power to Earth.

Uncontrolled blending is easy – black and white films have long been mastered. Fusion is what a hydrogen bomb does, releasing energy by forcing hydrogen atoms to fuse together. What was impossible was harnessing the fires of Armageddon into something useful.

The US Department of Energy’s Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory helps maintain nuclear weapons and conducts experiments using high energy physics. An hour east of San Francisco, we meet Livermore’s director, Kim Podell, at the lab that made history, the National Ignition Facility.

Kim Bodell: The National Ignition Facility is the world’s largest and most active laser. It was built starting in the 1990s, to create conditions in the laboratory that were previously only achievable in the most extreme objects in the universe, such as the center of giant planets, the sun, or in the operation of nuclear weapons. And the goal was to really be able to study this kind of very high energy, high density in a lot of detail.

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Kim Bodell

The National Ignition Facility, or NIF, was built for $3.5 billion to self-fuse ignition. They attempted nearly 200 times over the course of 13 years. But like a car with a weak battery, the atomic “engine” will never turn over.

Scott Pelley: NIF drew some titles.

Kim Bodell: I did. For many years “Never Ignition Facility”, “Never Ignition Facility”. Recently Ignition Facility Almost. So, this latter event really set the ignition on for NIF.

Ignition means igniting a fusion reaction that produces more energy than the laser in which it is placed.

Kim Bodell: If you can get it hot enough, dense enough, fast enough, and hold it together long enough, fusion reactions start to self-sustain. And that’s really what happened here on December 5th.

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National Ignition Facility control room

Last month, I fired the laser shot from this control room, putting two units of energy into the experiment, and the atoms started to fuse, and about three units of energy came out. Tammy Ma, who leads the lab’s laser fusion research initiatives, took the call while waiting for the plane.

Tammy Ma: And I burst into tears. They were just tears of joy. And it really started shaking — and jumping up and down, you know, at the gate before everybody got seated. Everyone was, like, “What is that crazy woman doing?”

Tammy Ma is crazy about geometry.

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Tubes that deliver energy to the laser beams

She explained to us why the problem of fusion causes tears. First, there is the required energy delivered by the laser in these tubes that are longer than a football field.

Scott Pelley: And what’s the total number?

Tammy Ma: 192 lasers.

Scott Pelley: Each of these lasers is one of the most energetic lasers in the world and you have 192 of them.

Tammy Ma: That’s cool, right?

Well, very hot actually, millions of degrees, which is why they use switches to shut off the laser.

The beams strike 1,000 times more powerfully than the entire national power grid. The lights in the house don’t go out when you pick them up because capacitors store electricity. In the tubes, the laser beams are amplified by racing back and forth and the flash is a split second.

Tammy Ma: We have to get to these amazing conditions. It’s much hotter and denser than the center of the Sun, so we need all that laser energy to get to very high energy densities.

All that wall vaporizing a target too small to see.

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laser target

Scott Pelley: Can I carry this thing?

Michael Staderman: Absolutely

Scott Pelley: Incredible. Absolutely amazing.

Michael Staderman’s team builds hydrogen-loaded hollow core target shells at minus 430 degrees.

Michael Staderman: The precision that we need to make these shells is very, very extreme. The shells are almost perfectly round. They have a roughness a hundred times better than that of a mirror.

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Michael Staderman

If it is not smoother than a mirror, the defects will make the collapse of the atoms uneven causing the fusion to fade.

Scott Pelley: These things have to be as close to perfect as possible.

Michael Staderman: That’s right. That’s right, and we think of them as among the most perfect elements we have on Earth.

Stadermann’s lab strives for perfection by vaporizing carbon and shaping the shell out of diamond. They build 1500 a year to be almost a perfect 150.

Michael Staderman: All the components are brought together under the same microscope. Then the assembler uses electromechanical stages to put the parts where they’re supposed to go – slide them together, then apply glue using a felt.

Scott Pelley: Poetry?

Michael Staderman: Yes. Usually something like an eyelash or similar, or a cat’s mustache.

Scott Pelley: Do you glue cat hair?

Michael Staderman: That’s right.

Scott Pelley: Why does it have to be so small?

Michael Staderman: Lasers only give us a limited amount of energy, and to drive a larger capsule we need more energy. So it’s one of the limitations of the facility that I’ve seen quite a bit. And despite how big it is, that’s about what we can drive with.

Scott Pelley: The target could be bigger, but then the laser would have to be bigger.

Michael Staderman: That’s right.

On December 5th, they used a thicker target to keep its shape longer and figured out how to boost the power of a laser shot without damaging the lasers.

Tammy Ma: This is an example of a target before shooting…

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Compilation of a proper goal

Tammy showed us what a healthy target group is. That diamond crust you saw inside that silver cylinder.

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vacuum chamber

This assembly goes into a blue vacuum room, three stories high. It’s hard to see here because it’s full of lasers and gadgets.

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This instrument they call Dante because, they tell us, it measures the fires of hell. One physicist said, “You should see the target we blew up on December 5th.”

Which made us ask, “Can we?”

Scott Pelley: Have you seen this before?

Tammy Ma: This is the first time I’ve seen it.

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The target that was bombed on December 5th

For Tammy Ma, and for the world, this is the first look at what remains of the target group that changed history–an artifact like Bell’s first telephone or Edison’s light bulb.

Scott Pelley: This thing will end up at the Smithsonian.

The target cylinder was blown to oblivion, as the brass strut holding it to the rear peeled off.

Scott Pelley: The explosion at the end of this was hotter than the sun.

Tami Ma: It was hotter than the center of the sun. We were able to achieve temperatures that were the hottest in the entire solar system.

Which would cause an astronomical change in electrical energy. Unlike today’s nuclear plants, which separate atoms from each other, fusion is many times more powerful, with very little long-term radiation. And it’s easy to turn it off, so breakdowns don’t happen. But the transition from first ignition to power plant is going to be tough.

Scott Pelley: How many shots do you take in a day?

Tammy Ma: We take, on average, more than one shot a day.

Scott Pelley: If this is in theory a commercial power plant, how many shots per day are needed?

Tammy Ma: It would take about ten shots per second. The other big challenge, of course, is not only increasing the repetition rate, but also getting the gains from the targets to go up to about 100 times.

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Tammy Ma

Not only would it be necessary for the reactions to produce a hundred times more energy, but the power plant would need 900,000 perfect diamond shells per day. Also, the laser should be more efficient. Remember, the December hack put in two units of energy and took out three? Well, it took 300 units of energy to fire the laser. By that standard, it was 300 inches, three out. These details weren’t front and center in the Energy Department’s December press conference that consolidated the progress with an unexpected timeline.

Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm at the Department of Energy press conference: Today’s announcement is a huge step forward toward the President’s goal of achieving commercial integration within a decade.

Scott Pelley: When I heard that President Biden’s goal was the power of business integration in a decade, I thought what?

Charles Sieff: I thought it was rubbish.

Charles Seif is a trained mathematician, science author, and professor at New York University who wrote a 2008 book on fusion power amplification.

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Charles Seif

Charles Sieff: I don’t want to minimize the fact that this is a real achievement. Ignition is a milestone that people have been trying to do for years. I’m afraid there are so many technical hurdles, even after such a great achievement – that ten years is a pipe dream.

Those hurdles include increasing Livermore’s achievement, Saif says. The December shot produced enough extra energy to boil two pots of coffee. Saif says obstacles can be overcome, but not soon.

Charles Sieff: I have a constant bet that we will not achieve it by 2050.

Betting on Charles Sieff’s prophecy, however, more than 30 private companies have designed different approaches to fusion power — including the use of magnets, not lasers. $3 billion in private money has poured into those companies in the past 13 months — including bets from Bill Gates and Google. Amid all the speculation, Lawrence Livermore’s manager, Kim Podell, is sure of one thing.

Scott Pelley: Can you do that again?

Kim Bodell: Absolutely.

Will try again next month. Badil agrees that the hurdles are formidable. But she told us that the commercial power of merging can be demonstrated in 20 years or so, with sufficient funding and dedication. We likened the first ignition to the Wright Brothers’ first flight which only covered 120 feet.

Kim Bodell: It’s one thing to believe — that science is possible — that conditions can be created, and it’s another to see that in action. It really feels great after working 60 years to get to this point on the first ride – we took that first ride.

It’s been 44 years from a leap in the pond to a supersonic flight. Whether fusion power is 10 or 50 years away is now mainly an engineering problem. Lawrence Livermore has proven that a star is born from a machine.

Produced by Andy Court. Associate Producer, Annabelle Hanflig. Broadcast assistant Michelle Karim. Edited by Jorge J. Garcia.

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