December 4, 2001
How’s this for an unintended consequence of the U.S. Federal government shutdown: Just a few weeks after crossing a major threshold in achieving nuclear fusion, researchers at the National Ignition Facility (NIF) in Livermore, CA, were furloughed.
To achieve fusion, the NIF sends 192 beams from a powerful laser (delivering a pulse of energy 1,000 times stronger than the entire generating capacity of the all of the power plants in the U.S.) to heat a pellet of hydrogen fuel. The September experiment was the first time any facility in the world had passed the break-even point on energy creation. The next step would be to reach what is known as the ignition point, when fusion produces as much energy as that supplied to the lasers.
If NIF is able to achieve ignition, it could pave the way for a new approach to nuclear power, although a number of obstacles still remain. Among those obstacles are the instability of the capsule holding the hydrogen fuel, and inefficiencies in the laser delivery system.