An Alternative Approach to Sustainable, Low-Carbon Energy: Laser Inertial Fusion Energy

Tomorrow I will be at Applied Materials meeting with employees to provide a brief overview of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) and an approach to generating carbon-free, economically competitive power from Laser Inertial Fusion Energy (LIFE). 

Founded in 1952 by Ernest O. Lawrence and Edward Teller, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory is a national security R&D organization and one of three Department of Energy National Nuclear Security Administration laboratories. Our core mission is to ensure the safety, security and reliability of the nation’s nuclear weapons stockpile in the absence of underground nuclear testing. As part of our broad mandate to serve the nation with applied science, we conduct leading edge RD&D in critical areas of 21st century national security such as nuclear, chemical and biological counterterrorism and nonproliferation; laser-based defense technologies and advanced conventional weapons; cyber security, space situational awareness and technical intelligence; as well as energy security and climate change, among other topics.

Energy security and climate change are key social imperatives today. Increasing worldwide demand for energy is placing enormous pressure on natural resources, the global ecosystem, and international political stability. Alternative sources of energy are required in order to meet increased energy demand, stabilize the increase of atmospheric carbon dioxide, and mitigate the concomitant climate change. In response to this challenge, governments are urgently trying to develop new economical, sustainable, and environmentally friendly energy technologies.

The LIFE concept and design are based on the National Ignition Facility (NIF) at LLNL, a 192 beam, 1.8 MJ, 500 TW laser system built to support the Laboratory’s missions in nuclear security, energy security and fundamental science. The NIF, which was completed in 2009, is well on its way to achieving, for the first time in history, the conditions required for controlled thermonuclear fusion and energy gain in the laboratory. This milestone, which is expected to be completed before the end of FY2012, will mark the end of a 50 year quest to achieve fusion ignition in the laboratory, and the beginning of the quest for commercial application of this clean, safe and sustainable source of energy.

LIFE utilizes a pulsed, MegaJoule-class laser to compress a mm-scale pellet containing Deuterium and Tritium to hundreds of millions of degrees and a hundred billion atmospheres. The resulting neutron-rich fusion source is then capable of generating several thousand MegaWatts by converting the neutron energy to heat in a blanket capable of simultaneously generating the Tritium required to sustain the fusion process. In such a system, materials challenges are associated with the laser gain media, potential laser and neutron damage to optical components, first wall materials survivability in the presence of intense 14 MeV neutrons, and corrosion of compatibility of thermal blanket components in the presence of Tritium. Because LIFE is safe and minimizes proliferation concerns associated with the nuclear fuel cycle, we envision this technology as capable of providing a global solution to baseload, carbon-free energy generation in the 21st century. I will describe progress at LLNL’s National Ignition Facility towards achieving fusion ignition and burn – the sine qua non condition for LIFE – and will discuss the specifics of the LIFE engine design and the basic and applied research challenges associated with making this vision a reality.

I welcome questions in advance of tomorrow’s talk.

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