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The National Ignition Facility Shows What American Science Can Do

The National Ignition Facility Shows What American Science Can Do

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By Brig. Gen. Stephen Cheney, USMC (ret); Brig. Gen. John Adams, USA (ret); and Andrew Holland, ASP Senior Fellow

Science is one of the most important parts of America’s long term national security and economic competitiveness. In the 1940s, we saw the greatest scientists in the world come together in Los Alamos in a race to build a nuclear weapon before the Nazis could. In the 1960s, the world marveled at how the Apollo Program demonstrated that American science and engineering ability could send men to the moon. When we apply cutting-edge science to achieving important real-world goals, there is nothing that America cannot do.

The inside of the NIF’s target chamber

Today, America is faced with a long-term challenge of how to power our economy. While we are experiencing a boom in domestic production of fossil fuels, we should not expect that to meet our growing long-term demand for energy. We should instead focus on breakthrough technologies that will be more secure, safe, economical, and sustainable than our current energy mix.

Although it is not talked about in our heated campaign season, American scientists are working on this today. Each of us recently had the opportunity to visit and tour the National Ignition Facility (NIF) at Lawrence Livermore National Lab in a tour organized by the American Security Project, a non-partisan think tank devoted to America’s long-term national security. ASP has brought out a fact sheet detailing “Inertial Confinement Fusion at the NIF.” The NIF is seeking to prove that fusion energy can be an important part of our national energy mix.

The NIF is ‘big science’ at its very best. It was completed in 2009 at the cost of $3.5 billion. The facility is about three football fields long. It consists of 192 of the largest, most powerful lasers in the world. These lasers are all focused inside a special chamber upon a target that is no larger than a pencil’s eraser. When fired, these lasers can create some of the hottest, densest conditions anywhere in the universe.

NIF is the central part of the National Ignition Campaign, a nationwide collaboration with some of the nation’s leading scientific institutions that is attempting to demonstrate fusion “ignition” – the point at which a self-sustained fusion reaction is achieved.

Fusion is a method of generating power that forces two atoms together, releasing tremendous amounts of energy. It could provide our country with a virtually limitless supply of clean energy. NIF’s experiments towards ignition are paving the way towards a better understanding of how to harness fusion to create energy. While ignition is proving to be more difficult than planned for, when achieved, it will be an important scientific milestone that demonstrates the potential for fusion to be a viable energy source.

Once the physics of ignition are proven, the leaders at NIF have detailed plans to move forward with a demonstration plant called LIFE (Laser Inertial Fusion Energy). LIFE would use available materials and market-based technology to build a commercial-scale power plant. This is achievable within a decade.

Already, utility executives are taking part in a LIFE Industry Stakeholders Advisory board that will allow utilities to make sure that their needs and concerns are met with the LIFE power plant. This is the best example of public-private partnerships: the government working to achieve important scientific breakthroughs, then working with the private sector to commercialize the technology. Once NIF demonstrates that laser fusion energy is possible, planning for LIFE will move forward.

The current leadership of NIF, under Dr. Ed Moses, is a model for the effectiveness of the government’s scientific achievements. In recognition of its success, NIF was awarded the “Project of the Year” by the Project Management Institute in 2010.

Even if NIF does not reach its goal of ignition by its somewhat arbitrary target date at the end of this month, its mission to achieve ignition should continue. The NIF is one of the crown jewels of American science. It proves that when we set-out to do big things, the path may be hard, but we can meet the biggest challenges head-on. NIF proves that the most important technological breakthroughs are not in ‘social networking’ – they are in the extreme edge of scientific understanding. So long as America continues to support projects like NIF, we are convinced that America will not lose its long-term competitiveness.

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