Fusion Breakthrough: At the Brink of Fusion Ignition at National Ignition Facility

The preamplifiers of the National Ignition Facility are the first step in increasing the energy of laser beams as they make their way toward the target chamber. Credit: Damien Jemison/LLNL

Experiments conducted in August achieved a record yield of more than 1.3 megajoules.

After decades of inertial confinement fusion research, a record yield of more than 1.3 megajoules (MJ) from fusion reactions was achieved in the laboratory for the first time during an experiment at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory’s (LLNL) National Ignition Facility (NIF) on August 8, 2021. These results mark an 8-fold improvement over experiments conducted in spring 2021 and a 25-fold increase over NIF’s 2018 record yield (Figure 1).

NIF precisely guides, amplifies, reflects, and focuses 192 powerful laser beams into a target about the size of a pencil eraser in a few billionths of a second. NIF generates temperatures in the target of more than 180 million F and pressures of more than 100 billion Earth atmospheres. Those extreme conditions cause hydrogen atoms in the target to fuse and release energy in a controlled thermonuclear reaction.

Figure 1. This image shows the fusion yield (megajoules) from 2011 to present. Credit: LLNL

LLNL physicist Debbie Callahan will discuss this achievement during a plenary session at the 63rd Annual Meeting of the APS Division of Plasma Physics. While there has been significant media coverage of this achievement, this talk will represent the first opportunity to address these results and the path forward in a scientific conference setting.

Achieving these large yields has been a long-standing goal for inertial confinement fusion research and puts researchers at the threshold of fusion ignition, an important goal of NIF, the world’s largest and most energetic laser.

The fusion research community uses many technical definitions for ignition, but the National Academy of Science adopted the definition of “gain greater than unity” in a 1997 review of NIF, meaning fusion yield greater than laser energy delivered. This experiment produced fusion yield of roughly two-thirds of the laser energy that was delivered, tantalizingly close to that goal.

The experiment built on several advances developed over the last several years by the NIF team including new diagnostics; target fabrication improvements in the capsule shell, fill tube, and hohlraum (a gold cylinder that holds the target capsule); improved laser precision; and design changes to increase the energy coupled to the implosion and the compression of the implosion.

These advances open access to a new experimental regime, with new avenues for research and the opportunity to benchmark modeling used to understand the proximity to ignition.

Meeting: 63rd Annual Meeting of the APS Division of Plasma Physics

AR01.00001: Achieving a Burning Plasma on the National Ignition Facility (NIF) Laser

American Physical SocietyEnergyFusion EnergyFusion ReactorLawrence Livermore National LaboratoryNational Ignition FacilityPopular
Comments ( 22 )
Add Comment
  • Clyde Spencer

    “This experiment produced fusion yield of roughly two-thirds of the laser energy that was delivered, tantalizingly close to that goal.”

    I was pleased to come across this metric of performance because it is mostly physicists and engineers that understand what a megajoule is. However, the lasers aren’t the only thing consuming power, and to be useful, the device has to produce much more than a break-even amount of usable energy. No mention is made of how efficiently they think any excess energy can be converted to electricity.

  • Sekar

    Interesting Research Debra.

    Recommendations and thoughts for getting to objective from a practical POV. (Point of View)

    1. Scaling up from Lab to Working reactor where ignition is achieved is another kettle of fish🐠🐋🐟.

    2. Suggest contrarian thinking🤔.

    3. Compact reactor where such fusion controlled experiments can be carried out at a safe distance from home planet.

    Key is ensuring CONTROLLED chain reaction and doing it in the 🥶🥶Cold🥶 of Space, where it can be Cooled down rapidly in case CONTROLLED becomes UNCONTROLLED. This suggestion is from a risk Management perspective.

    Two advantages.

    1. Make’s limitless energy source available to travel the 🌌 Universe at speeds approaching / exceeding the Speed of Light.

    Speeds exceeding the known Speed of Light is possible depending on the medium through which this energy needs to travel.

    From a Science point of View, limiting the Research to only extreme temperatures and pressures and building Reactors and Technology to achieve plasma fusion using brute force may not get us to practical applications of the benefits of limitless power and energy from a fusion reactor.

    In chemistry the importance of catalysts to improve yield is a well known phenomenon.

    In nuclear chemistry and Quantum Chemistry and physics, the same principle may apply and the necessary Sub atomic particles conducive for creating a man made sun near earth which can produce such energy , needs to be determined.

    The practical example is the Sun ☀️ where temperatures and pressures are much lower that the 180 million degrees used in the experiment.

    Maybe the Attempts to understand the Sun ☀️ by sending probes may result in the Sun ☀️ yielding some of its secrets.

    After all you will have the mini Sun ☀️ producing controlled energy and powering the tail of the Space Ships carrying us into 🌌Space.

    Views expressed are personal and not binding on anyone.

  • paul bedichek

    We only wish it were much more powerful, there is no danger, how could there be, we’d like it to be 10 times as powerful ,but to make it to a power plant,it would have to fire ten times a second.

  • Daniel

    Assuming a 40% energy collection rate (among the best energy collection rates available for thermal energy to electricity conversion presently available), and a facility that requires x3 the power of the actual laser input (which would include all operations, not just the central device), I guess that means we just need a result that’s x11.5 better than this to break even. Meaning, x12 of this would be the very minimum to produce a practical commercial application of fusion energy. Which… That’s amazing we’ve gotten so far! But hold the celebration, because x12 this is still potentially a LONG way off.

  • Mr. Timm

    “Uncontrolled” would imply that fusion could be sustained indefinitely, which would actually be a breakthrough. I think you’re confusing fusion with fission. No need to blast it into space.

  • Jarvis

    The actual tethering of orbital sat sunlight to laser fusion on a earth bound reactor would be more practical and easier to accomplish in the long run.

    • peabody3000

      in that case why not just harvest that sunlight energy directly rather than shoehorning it into lossy thermonuclear reaction processes?

  • peabody3000

    this facility isn’t designed to produce any sustained reaction. it’s a monstrous laser setup that for an incredibly brief moment of nanoseconds uses more energy than the entire US to produce fusion. it may ultimately be useful research, but for now it doesn’t resemble anything like what fusion power generation may look like, if and when it finally materializes

  • Greg

    Explain to me how it could be 100 billion times the earths atmosphere

  • Vernon Brechin

    The NIF administrators always misrepresent the primary function of NIF when they present it to the public. NIF has always been primarily funded as a thermonuclear explosive (H-bomb) fuel compression research tool. The project completion was very late and way over the original intended budget. The just announced achievement was supposed to have been exceeded by 2011, about a year after it started operating at full laser power. The term ignition is misleading since once the reaction is initiated it extinguishes within about a billionth of a second as the ultra-compressed plasma expands outward in a miniature thermonuclear explosion that disperses most of the fuel. The staff is lucky if they can get one shot per day and the machine design prevents frequent detonations. The reference energy is the laser beam energy going into the hohlraum not the energy supplied to the lasers, or to the facility. The facility energy is more than 200 times greater than the ‘reference’ energy. The fuel is a mix of chilled rare deuterium and exceedingly rare and costly radioactive tritium. Most fusion fans have no interest in looking into critical assessments of such technologies.

    ITER is a showcase … for the drawbacks of fusion energy

    What No One Else Is Telling You About Nuclear Fusion

    Fusion Has Major Problems That No One Is Telling You About

    Former fusion scientist on why we won’t have fusion power by 2040

    How close is nuclear fusion power?

  • Frank Merenda

    Guys and girls, relax. In this case science is incremental, and this is a huge step in the right direction, and a great achievement. It’s guns be a while before we try any of the suggestions you all have presented. But for now, let’s give credit where credit is due. This is amazing, and congrats to all involved! Let’s but forget, we, as humans, have *never done this before*!!!

    Note; I’m not a scientist, and I don’t play one on tv, but I do have a technical background.

  • Douglas

    If you folks would like to have a conversation , I have complete tech and blueprints to create cold fusion. It is from a source ,let’s say not from earth. Its has baan built tested and certified that it works. The build and tests were done in Russia. Please call if this sounds of interest. I’m not a quack but an accomplished inventor. My name is Douglas ,I can be reached at 303-668-1093 or Dougthegoldenone@gmail.com

  • Steve Jones

    It was 1974 when I came west to work at LLNL (although it was LLL at the time). They had some cool fusion research that started, I think, when I was there. The by-product was water. If anything failed it just stopped. If it worked, there was the promise of unlimited energy at low cost. It would completely change the world. This was particularly promising at the time because the once promising nuclear reactor solution was nearly single-handedly wiped out by Jane Fonda and “The China Syndrome”.
    Anyway, it was estimated to be ten years before the technology could be refined to the point where it could generate the same amount of energy as it took to cause it (break even). And another ten years to refine it to the point where it was commercially viable. That would have 2000.
    I’ve watched with interest (and some amusement) as advances have been publicized and the same timeline promised ever since. But while many claim the funding has been a multi-billion-dollar boondoggle, I’ve been holding out hope. Because…as I’ve said it could completely change the world.
    Which brings us back to Livermore one more time.

  • Patrice Ayme

    We are getting there. Fusion is necessary. It took 2000 years. 2 millenia, to make steam power work.

  • Victor Webster

    Actually China is now leading the way to fusion. But we don’t hear about that in the western press.

  • Drew

    2/3 is NOT tantalizingly close to more than 1, and you’ll need a final output of much higher than 1 to be actually useful. The use of a lower bar for calling it ignition is also stupid, unless it produces more than it consumes it’s still just a really expensive science toy.

  • Anthony Stage

    Lasers are cool,but the only laser I can think of that is not impeded by the optical effects of the fusion event would be an x-ray laser. The earth’s core is a fusion reactor. Using only the pressure of gravity to achieve fusion ignition and keep it going like sonoluminessence pressure waves, but multiple waves, combining peaks with the lasers to control the reaction in a cup like 3/4ths? sphere around the central point rather like a wine goblet. Magnetic fields rotating the heavy water below an to the sides allowing cooling of material
    components of the of the containment vessel and heat conduction out the top of the same to convert the heat and excess pressure into electricity.

    • Clyde Spencer

      “The earth’s core is a fusion reactor.”

      I’m amazed at how frequently I see off-the-wall, unsupported statements like this. I’m beginning to think that there is something in the drinking water that causes people to behave as irrationally as if they had drunk copious amounts of ethanol. Or maybe it has something to do with the legalization of marijuana. In any event, it doesn’t bode well for democracy when there are so many people who are out of touch with reality.

  • Eric Schneider

    Others have commented that 1 is not a good threshold because you still need to convert that energy to usable energy. This misleadingly underestimates the magnitude of this accomplishment.

    There’s a phase shift at one where instead of needing to constantly feed more energy in to keep it running, it becomes self perpetuating as long as you’re feeding it raw materials. Once you’ve obtained this state, you can have the experiment consume that extra energy to make more energy. At that point, the initial energy investment becomes irrelevant since 1 initial energy leads to say 1.2 energy leads to 1.44 energy … leads to 1000 energy … After you have a sufficient amount of energy in the reactor, the initial small investment is irrelevant so you can start removing large chunks of energy even at inefficient rates.

    Of course, there’s significant challenges in shifting from the ignition stage to the self-perpetuating stage – wastage and wear and tear probably increases at that point as more energy is involved, and we need to figure out efficient extraction mechanisms. Despite these large future challenges, this seems like a large promising step forward.

    • Clyde Spencer

      “… there’s significant challenges in shifting from the ignition stage to the self-perpetuating stage …”

      Not the least of which is scaling up so that the volume of the plasma can provide your “1000 energy.” These are prototypes to test things such as the stability of the plasma. They aren’t big enough to produce sufficient energy to power a city.

  • Vernon Brechin

    It is clear that many posters didn’t read my previous posting, or they failed to understand what I was describing about NIF which has always been primarily funded as a thermonuclear explosive (H-bomb) fuel compression research tool, not a fusion reactor research machine.

    The term ignition is highly misleading since once the chilled fuel pellet is ultra-compressed to the point of fusion reactions being initiated the radiation pressure and other forces cause it to violently expand in the form of a mini-explosion and the unfissioned fuel is blasted away from the reaction center, thereby ending the reaction that only occurs due to the laser beam pulse that last a few billionths of a second. The lab is lucky if it can get in more than one shot per day. The massive lasers require a lengthy cool down period after each test shot. An entirely different laser technology would be needed to achieve more than one shot per hour. Additionally, the official driver energy value is the laser pulse energy delivered to the target hohlarum. That energy is not related to the energy it takes to operate the facility, which is at least 200 times greater.

    It has been customary for the NIF administrators to leave out key details which makes sense since portions of the experiment and data are classified.