Machinery of an Energy Dream
Fusion, the process that powers the sun, is the forever dream of energy scientists — safe, nonpolluting and almost boundless. Even here at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, where the primary focus of fusion work involves nuclear weapons, many scientists talk poetically about how it could end the world’s addiction to fossil fuels.
“It’s the dream of the future, solving energy,” said Stephen E. Bodner, a retired physicist who worked on fusion at Livermore in the 1960s and ’70s, recalling that the military focus was basically a cover story, a way to keep government money flowing to the lab for energy research.
“Everyone was winking,” he said. “Everyone knew better.”
The basic concept behind fusion is simple: Squeeze hydrogen atoms hard enough and they fuse together in helium. A helium atom weighs slightly less than the original hydrogen atoms, and by Einstein’s equation E = mc2, that liberated bit of mass turns into energy. Hydrogen is so abundant that unlike fossil fuels or fissionable material like uranium, it will never run out.
But controlled fusion is still a dream, avidly pursued and perpetually out of reach. Scientists have never figured out a way to keep a fusion reaction going long enough to generate usable energy. The running joke is that “fusion is 30 years in the future — and always will be.”
Now, however, scientists here have given the world some hopeful progress. Last month, a team headed by Omar A. Hurricane announced that it had used Livermore’s giant lasers to fuse hydrogen atoms and produce flashes of energy, like miniature hydrogen bombs. The amount of energy produced was tiny — the equivalent of what a 60-watt light bulb consumes in five minutes. But that was five times the output of attempts a couple of years ago.
When a physicist named Hurricane generates significant bursts of fusion energy with 192 mega-lasers, the Twitterverse revels in the comic book possibilities.
“Wasn’t he in X-Men?” one person tweeted.
“Awesome science story, but there’s a zero percent chance that a fusion laser scientist named Dr. Hurricane isn’t a supervillain,” another chimed in.
Actually, Dr. Hurricane, 45, is more Clark Kent than superhero. Instead of saving the world, his ambition is to explore the scientific puzzle in front of him.
He said it was too early to speculate about future laser-fusion power plants, and tried to deflect credit to the more than 20 scientists on the team. “I don’t want it to be about me or my funny name,” he said.