Clean energy forever. That, in a glorious theoretical nutshell, is what nuclear fusion – the reaction that gives stars and hydrogen bombs their immense power – could deliver. The urgency of the climate-change debate and the renewed impetus to tackle the 21st century’s glaring energy problems have put fusion back on the agenda… and, thanks to key contributions from the British-trained scientist Dr Brian MacGowan, the highly volatile process may be harnessed to provide us with a viable source of green electricity sooner than previously expected.
Staff at the National Ignition Facility (NIF) in central California are confident that some time in 2010, they will create a fusion reaction by focusing 192 intense ultra-violet lasers on to a tiny golden pellet, recreating the energy of the sun for a fraction of a second, thereby paving the way to a carbon-neutral future without global warming or nuclear waste. If all goes to plan, the implications would fairly reflect California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s recent description of the project as “monumental”. Fusion, we’re told, could be mankind’s salvation – but what are the chances of translating theory into practice?
…The accuracy of MacGowan’s lasers, according to NIF’s brochure, “can be compared to standing on the pitcher’s mound at AT&T Park in San Francisco and throwing a strike at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles, some 350 miles away”. Elsewhere, I’m told to digest the idea that a dollar bill (or a paperclip) contains the energy of one nuclear explosion, and I’m also asked to imagine the pressure of 10 aircraft carriers on my thumb…
So, will Inertial Confinement Fusion really work? “When we do our first ignition shot [in 2010] we’ll be very confident we’ll succeed,” says MacGowan. “We have a series of about 100 experiments to do before then, which will establish that we’ve adjusted the laser and the target, and the design of the target, sufficiently well to have a high confidence of ignition…. MacGowan believes NIF’s major contribution to fusion energy will be demonstrating the fact that it works, and – all being well – he expects a “prototype energy production capability” to follow by 2020.