Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Fusion. Some like it hot.

Sometimes when we see the news, it's all bad--wars, revolutions, terrorism, natural disasters, disease, corruption.  Seems like everyone is bent on killing and robbing each other.  So when I read about something positive, I like to share it.

I'm racing through Michio Kaku's book PHYSICS OF THE FUTURE, and learning new things in every chapter.  In the chapter on the future of energy, Kaku writes about visiting the National Ignition Facility (NIF) at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and how the building housing the experiment is as wide as three football fields and ten stories tall. 

The NIF fires 192 lasers at a tiny pellet of deuterium and tritium in the hope of achieving a controlled thermonuclear burn with an energy gain.  In other words, they want to produce more energy than it took to ignite the pellet to begin with.

Why is this important? Our current nuclear power plants use fission, not fusion.  And fission produces tons of radioactive waste that must be stored and stays dangerous for many years.  Fusion works by fusing hydrogen atoms, which releases energy but doesn't produce nearly as much waste.  And a fusion plant cannot melt down because it can't have a runaway chain reaction.

If we can figure out fusion and build reliable fusion plants, we can solve many of our energy problems.  Seawater could be used as fuel, and the energy produced is staggering.  Kaku points out that an "8-ounce glass of water is equal to the energy content of 500,000 barrels of petroleum."

This is science on a grand scale.  Giant facilities.  Thousands of workers.  Huge freaking lasers.  Like something Jack Kirby drew in the comics from the 1960s.  But the best thing is the idea that a lot of smart, hard working people are trying to do something positive.  Something that may help solve the energy problems of billions of people, including you and me.

(The picture above is the installation of the targeting chamber, which looks like a junior Death Star.  It is from the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.  Check out the NIF site here for more pictures and articles.)


  1. It was great having lunch with ya today and discussing the creative field. To put it in a cliche, Don't be a stranger!

    Anyway, I agree that the targeting chamber looks like a junior Death Star and that is awesome! :)

  2. Thanks dude, I appreciate the visit!