Jan. 27, 2023
LLNL Director Kim Budil oversaw the recent fusion breakthrough in the pursuit of clean, abundant energy at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in a form called ignition, which is hailed by the Department of Energy as a “historic, first-of-its kind achievement.”
Inside LLNL’s National Ignition Facility, where in December, a breakthrough in nuclear fusion was made, the man who first predicted it still works – 60 years later.
John Nuckolls, now in his 90s, was one of the pioneers of inertial confinement fusion. “He’s a great physicist and tremendously passionate about this work,” said Budil, LLNL director told the World Economic Forum during the Annual Meeting 2023 in Davos, Switzerland. “He’s worked now with many generations of researchers to advance the cause ... Although when we told him what happened, his first comment was, ‘What’s the next thing that you're going to do?’”
Budil and her team of 8,000 engineers, physicists, chemists and materials scientists at the LLNL facility successfully used lasers to create the star-like conditions of fusion ignition in a lab. The ignition resulted in a net energy gain for the first time, meaning the fusion reaction produced more energy than it consumed - a net gain of 1.5 megajoules.
Whipping aerosols into shape
Aerosols are tiny particles that can have a significant impact on Earth's climate and human health. For example, these microdroplets can reflect incoming sunlight back to outer space, helping to cool a warming planet. Or they can be used to administer drugs to the lungs, especially to treat respiratory ailments.
The ability to more precisely control how aerosols move is critically important to pharmaceutical sciences and climate research. Aerosol science also is a key aspect of many industries, everything from automobiles to food processing.
Scientists have recently published a study describing a breakthrough device — a new whipping jet aerosol sprayer — that is relatively inexpensive to build and operate.
"We have created a unique, steady-state, gas-focused whipping jet that does not use electricity," says the lead author Sankar Raju Narayanasamy, a researcher at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.
Light it up
The Department of Energy (DOE) has announced $2.3 million in funding for 10 projects that will pair private industry with DOE's national laboratories to overcome challenges in fusion energy development, an area of research that captivated global attention in December when the department announced that a team at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory had achieved fusion ignition.
Ignition, in which more energy was derived from fusion than was put into it, had never been accomplished before in a laboratory setting and raised hopes that fusion energy could play a major role in the transition to clean energy.
"We were elated when the team at Livermore delivered the news that they had achieved fusion ignition, and we knew that was just the beginning," said U.S. Secretary of Energy Jennifer M. Granholm. "The companies and DOE scientists will build on advances from the National Labs with the entrepreneurial spirit of the private sector to advance our understanding of fusion."
Water is an old timer
“Fossil water” is described as water that has been buried deep in the Earth for millennia. According to new radiocarbon and other isotopic age-dating tools, the water in the Fenner aquifer (in California’s Central Valley) hit the surface as rain during the last Ice Age, when mammoths still lived here. In the current desert climate, this groundwater will never replenish itself, at least not on a human time scale. Once we use it, it’s never coming back. And unless the aquifer is actively refilled, its depletion could have serious consequences for ecosystems aboveground.
Fossil water, also called paleowater, is the largest nonfrozen freshwater resource on the planet. But for most of human history, few knew it existed. In the 1950s, oil prospectors began turning up vast, untouched supplies of water, often hidden under deserts. Like oil deposits, the buried water inspired opportunists: In Libya, the dictator Muammar Qaddafi tapped the Nubian sandstone aquifer to power his Great Man-Made River, one of the world’s largest irrigation projects. In India, desert aquifers fed the Green Revolution, transforming the country into the world’s second-largest producer of wheat.
But one thing stands out in all these projects: the water cannot be returned.
In 2019, scientists at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and California State University, East Bay published the first comprehensive age study of California groundwater, surveying more than 2,000 wells and found that approximately 7 percent of the samples contained isotopes associated with water that is at least 10,000 years old. In the Central Valley, where worsening droughts have led many large-scale farms to invest in deeper wells, renewable groundwater appears to be especially scarce.
We got the power
General Atomics and Lawrence Livermore have been awarded funding to advance power and particle exhaust capabilities in commercial-scale fusion energy pilot plants (FPPs) using machine learning.
A public-private partnership funded by the Department of Energy (DOE), the Innovation Network for Fusion Energy (INFUSE) program promotes collaboration between private-sector fusion energy companies, universities and the DOE’s national laboratories to accelerate research and develop cost-effective, innovative fusion energy technologies.
Fusion is the process that powers the stars and offers the potential for nearly limitless clean, safe, and economic electricity. The process occurs when two light nuclei combine to form a new one, releasing vast amounts of energy. At-scale fusion energy holds the promise of replacing fossil fuel plants and providing always-on carbon-free electricity that will be critical to reaching net-zero emissions.
Researchers can create fusion using a tokamak, a device that uses heat, magnets and microwaves to create a plasma — a highly ionized “soup” of charged particles that can be controlled by magnetic fields in a vacuum. Plasma must be heated to temperatures exceeding 100 million degrees Celsius, approximately ten times the temperature at the center of the sun, to achieve fusion conditions relevant for energy production.