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Nearly forgotten at times in the buzz of new and renewable energy resources, the pursuit of unlimited fusion energy still engages many different kinds and scales of effort.
Unlike nuclear fission, in which energy is released by splitting the atom, nuclear fusion creates sun-like quantities of energy by fusing or joining atoms together. Existing nuclear plants work by fission. While they are controversial and still unfulfilled, dreams of one day solving the world’s energy problem often return to the long-term promise of fusion.
An Internet article on BNET recently highlighted “Ten serious Nuclear Fusion Projects Making Progress Around the World.”
The highlighted projects included huge investments like the $10 billion International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) under construction in France and the $4 billion, $300 million a year National Ignition Facility (NIF) at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. The BNET article calls NIF “the world’s most watched project,” as it prepares to achieve fusion by firing 192 powerful laser beams into a cylinder the size of a pencil eraser.
The list of serious projects also includes the FRX-L project at Los Alamos National Laboratory, a relatively small experiment, with a budget of about $2.5 million a year. FRX-L has the distinction of being a direct descendant of the Perhapsatron, as recounted in Los Alamos Science (Winter/Spring 1983), the first so-called Z-pinch machine, devised by Jim Tuck, a British scientist who worked with Edward Teller and Enrico Fermi at Los Alamos. Tuck considered the concept of a pulsed, pinched, high-density plasma to be the most promising way to control the enormous energy required to produce fusion.
Nearly 60 years later, LANL scientists are preparing for a return to the research arena, with a series of joint experiments with the Air Force Research Laboratory in Albuquerque. Their niche in the world fusion research is known as magnetized target fusion.
Aiming for an April test date, Glen Wurden, the fusion team leader at LANL, said the current effort makes use of the AFRL pulsed power machine, “Shiva Star.” The machine delivers an enormous amount of power in tiny fractions of a second. FRX-L will enlist the machine to crush an aluminum can and pinch a magnetically contained plasma toward the threshold of density required for fusion.
“The Air Force knows how to crush the can and we know how to form the plasma, after 20 years,” Wurden said.
The work in Albuquerque will be done with partners from The University of New Mexico, the University of Wisconsin and the University of Washington.
The program, Wurden said, aspires to build to four shots for the year and advance to a more advanced experiments at the Nevada Test Site.
In recent years, Los Alamos physicists have been all-purpose collaborators with other fusion researchers around the world. But in the background, a small group of scientists with the FRX-L project has been chipping away at developing their own specialized concept for fusion.
If successful, magnetized target fusion could point the way to what may be a more practical and economical approach, according to the investigators.
Fusion was harnessed for military purposes, in part, because a thermonuclear bomb was a force that could not be contained and therefore could cause a great deal of damage when it was unleashed.
Having the energy available from the conversion of mass into energy, but getting more of that energy than is put into the system and at a reasonable cost in a steady, manageable stream continues to be the elusive dream.
Edmund Synakowski described “the energy producing power of a star for the benefit of mankind” in a statement for his presentation at a Congressional hearing in October 2009. Synakowski said the field of fusion was, “an energy system whose fuel is obtained from seawater and from plentiful supplies of lithium in the Earth, whose resulting radioactivity is modest compared to fission and which yields zero carbon emissions to the atmosphere.”
He called it “one of the most challenging programs of scientific research and development that has ever been undertaken.”