Calm down. There's no NIF fusion power "breakthrough"
Date: Thursday, December 15, 2022 @ 19:33:50 GMT
Topic: Science

From There is no “breakthrough”: NIF fusion power still consumes 130 times more energy than it creates by Tom Hartsfield

If you gave me $400 and I gave you $3.15, would you consider yourself wealthier? That's a financial analogy for the supposed fusion power "breakthrough."

Key Takeaways
  • In 2021, NIF’s laser fusion energy output jumped by 2,500%, a legitimate breakthrough.
  • This year, NIF reports that it has achieved "ignition" — that is, it has achieved slightly more fusion energy output than laser energy input.
  • However, to produce commercial fusion power, NIF would need to increase the fusion output of each experiment by at least 100,000%. The technological hurdles are absolutely enormous.

Here we go again. In 2021, the National Ignition Facility (NIF) announced a scientific breakthrough in its pursuit of fusion power technology. One year later, they’re making another announcement, heralded as “game-changing,” “transformative,” and “a moment of history.” But this is not a meaningful breakthrough for practical, commercial fusion power: NIF still drains at least 130 times more energy from the power grid than it produces.

A legitimate breakthrough in 2021

Last year’s big news was that NIF dramatically increased the fusion output of its experiments. At the time, I wrote about NIF and the scientific background of its accomplishment. They earned most of their hype. Here’s a quick recap:

“[NIF] was built for two missions. Performing research in support of the Stockpile Stewardship Program is the foremost duty, but the sign over the door doesn’t say “National Stockpile Research Facility.” NIF is named after its other task: to further our quest to understand and harness energy from nuclear fusion. A recent breakthrough in this fusion mission has made headlines across the scientific community.”

“One of two critical parts of NIF’s fusion mission is “ignition“: release of a quantity of fusion energy greater than the laser energy required to drive the implosion. After the failure of the National Ignition Campaign, many scientists believed that ignition at NIF was impossible. That goal remains just beyond our grasp, but it is now far closer than before. The bigger news is that we may have seen the first sign of the other important fusion goal: thermonuclear burn.”

A hyped breakthrough in 2022

In that work, NIF’s laser fusion energy output — measured in megajoules, MJ — jumped by 2,500%, a sign of a significant physics breakthrough on the crucial problem of thermonuclear burn. This week’s announcement is an increase in fusion energy output, relative to laser energy input, from 70% in 2021 to 154% in 2022. This incremental, possibly incidental, progress toward thermonuclear burn is not a breakthrough.

The facility has, at last, achieved slightly more fusion output than laser input: ignition. On paper that is a major symbolic victory. In practice, it’s of little consequence. Here’s why.

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