While a working fusion reactor is at best many years away (and development funding remains an issue), the National Ignition Facility (NIF) passed several major milestones in the first half of this year that should bode well for the facility’s program.
The NIF’s goal is to ignite a fusion reaction using 192 high-energy lasers to implode a target pellet of hydrogen isotopes. This spring, the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory-based facility fired its most powerful blast ever, a 1.875-megajoule shot into the laser’s target chamber.
There are several points worth mentioning about this shot. First, it exceeded the current system’s design specifications, according to Nature. Second, the facility was able to fire a second shot within 36 hours.
Since the start of the year, the facility has been able to rapidly scale in both performance and reliability. For example, the facility is firing the lasers more often. Last year, the facility would fire the lasers about 15 or 20 times a month. This year it has been able to double or triple that rate. For example, there were 57 firings in January.
From an operational perspective, the facility has found that firing the lasers produces less than expected damage and degradation to the system’s optics, which will focus the multiple laser beams unto a fuel pellet. This means the lasers can operate at a higher energy level than the system was designed to support.
Even with these technological accomplishments, there is a long way to go to reach ignition. And funding could become a problem. While the program and its progress seems to be viewed favorably by overseers, Federal funding (in general) is being closely scrutinized, Congress is looking to cut spending, and this is an election year.