Clean energy advocates generally shun talk of a "silver-bullet" technology that can replace fossil fuels and provide carbon-free power. However, the promise of fusion-based energy defies the common sense belief that an array of renewable fuel sources is needed to shift away from dirty carbon-based fuels.
As the National Ignition Facility (NIF) at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) in California approaches completion, researchers are preparing to test what they say could be an unlimited nuclear power source without the environmental hazards produced by nuclear fission.
Fission--the splitting of atoms--is the traditional source of power generated at nuclear power plants. Fusion releases similar quantities of power, but combines atoms, instead of splitting them, producing far less radioactive waste and reducing the danger of accidents, researchers say.
California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger toured the stadium-sized NIF facility Monday for briefings on its missions. NIF, the world's largest laser, was constructed under the auspices of the Department of Energy's National Nuclear Security Administration. NIF is 99% complete and is scheduled for completion in March 2009. Shortly thereafter, U.S. scientists will begin experiments preparing for fusion ignition, the energy source that powers the sun and the stars.
The lab's first ignition attempt is set for 2010, with a goal of reaching nuclear fusion in 2011.
While at the National Ignition Facility, the Governor was briefed on LIFE (Laser Inertial Confinement Fusion-Fission Energy). LIFE is an energy production concept that will use a laser system similar to NIF that could be used to generate abundant carbon-free electricity far into the foreseeable future.
"An aggressive development of this technology could lead to a LIFE pilot power generation plant in the 2020 timeframe followed by commercial deployment in the following 10 years," said Ed Moses, who heads up the NIF and is a leader in the development of LIFE.
"This laser technology has the potential to revolutionize our energy future," Gov. Schwarzenegger said. "If successful, this new endeavor could generate thousands of megawatts of carbon-free nuclear power but without the drawbacks of conventional nuclear plants. This type of innovation is why we are a world leader in science, technology and clean energy, and I could not be prouder that this work is happening right here in California."
In the next few years NIF will take the next major step toward realizing LIFE power production by completing the first demonstration of fusion ignition in the laboratory. Laser-fusion has been a grand challenge of scientists around the world for 50 years, since the invention of the laser. Moses said, "Now we are within reach of attempting this goal."