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DOE Proposes $42 Million Enhancement for Inertial Confinement Fusion

The U.S. Department of Energy has announced $42 million for a program that will establish multi-institutional hubs to advance “foundational inertial fusion energy” science and technology. The program, announced Dec. 7, will attempt to build on the successful work of the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory National Ignition Facility in achieving “ignition.” However, such work could use dramatically increased funding and perhaps the use of the capacity of other production facilities, under a repurposing the funding of the war industry budget and reconversion of some of the war industry’s facilities.

The DOE plan would expand research and development at three hubs: 1) An Inertial Fusion Energy-consortium on Laser-Plasma Interaction hub, with the University of Rochester in New York as the leader, but also involving the University of California at Los Angeles, and the University of Nebraska at Lincoln; 2) An Inertial Fusion Science and Technology hub with Colorado State University as the leader, and involving Cornell University, General Atomics, Los Alamos National Laboratory and 7 other institutions; and 3) A National Science and Technology Accelerated Research for Fusion Innovation & Reactor Engineering hub, with Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory as the leader, and involving MIT, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Longview Fusion Energy, and 16 other institutions.

The DOE plan would bring in several additional institutions to solve some of the issues in producing commercial fusion. It would build on the work achieved at the Livermore National Ignition Facility when on July 30, 2023, the facility’s 192 laser beams delivered 2.05 megajoules of energy, which are directed at the walls of a little gold cylinder, at the center of the reactor. This then generates a precise and symmetrical x-ray flux that causes a frozen fuel pellet made up of hydrogen isotopes of deuterium and tritium to compress and release a shock explosion of 3.88 megajoules of energy. The output of this ignition was nearly twice that of the input (see EIR’s interview with Paul Gallagher, “Fusion Power Can Be a Lot Closer Than You Think,” Jan. 27, 2023).

That is the most essential ignition achieved anywhere. But consider that the bank of 192 lasers that generates the beam consumes between 90-99% of all the power involved in the experiment used to generate the 2.05 megajoule beam that ignites the fuel pellet. The lasers are quite old. One could never expend that amount of electricity on a bank of lasers to run a commercial fusion reaction. Consider also that Livermore NIF can only run about four pulses (beam releases) per year, whereas a fusion reactor would need 5 to 20 pulses per second to be successful. There is significant work to be done.

While the DOE’s proposed $42 million program enhancement is in the right direction, bringing in an additional 30 research institutions, success will not be accomplished by merely budgeting an additional $42 million. Only by shifting significant funds out of the Department of Defense’s proposed $850 billion budget, and reconverting some of the DOD research and development programs as well as the plant and equipment of war industries to a serious fusion effort, solving some of the above problems, could commercial application of the Livermore NIF facility design be achieved in a timely fashion. The same is true of tokamak magnetic confinement and other approaches to fusion. For the fusion expenditure, to the tune of many billions of dollars, reconversion would be a great benefit.