Nuclear Fusion Reactor

The heart of the National Ignition Facility (NIF) at Lawrence Livermore National Labs. This is where it all comes together.


Project Director Ed Moses (far left) is confident that they will ignite fusion in the next 3 to 6 months.


In the neighboring rooms are 192 lasers, each of which is the most energetic in world (100x any predecessor). Their meter-wide beams enter through the shiny rectangular lens arrays to focus down on a precise spot (aligned to 30 micron spatial and picosecond temporal accuracy) in the center of this blue spherical chamber. Therein lies a gold tic-tac shaped pellet, that will absorb the laser energy and emit x-rays internally, like the evenly distributed warmth of an oven. At the center of the gold pellet is a tiny red droplet of frozen hydrogen isotopes (deuterium and tritium near absolute zero, 20°K) encased in plastic. It will take a wild ride, whipping from zero to 3 million degrees in just 20 billionths of a second. As the plastic explodes, it also implodes, driving the hydrogen inward at 1 million MPH to fuse into helium, hopefully igniting a chain reaction of fusion in the droplet.


A tiny brown dwarf star will be born.


That colorful comparison comes courtesy of SETI Director Jill Tartar (floral centerpiece above).


The hot neutrons released in the fusion reaction can be captured by a molten salt blanket, driving an energy plant much like a solar thermal facility. “Syn-solar” in this case. This was a name Danny Hillis (beard-masked-man above) suggested while we were brainstorming better names for this reactor. I kicked off the renaming discussion with the observation that for most people, fusion and fission are a confused blur, like stalagmites and stalactites. Even calling it a “helium fusion engine” might help pseudo-scientists remember the distinction. It’s continuous baseload power, like the atomic energy plants of today, but without the nasty bits.


Anyway, including lithium in the salt bath can generate more tritium fuel, and so the only fuel needed is deuterium, which Ed Moses estimates is available in such abundance that we could power all of the Earth’s energy needs for 10x the expected lifespan of our sun, at which point we will have a bigger climate problem. =)

  • profsr_jones 5y

    Now THAT's a future I can believe in!
  • Daniel D'Auria 5y

    Now if you could just "shrink that down" and put it in the back of a car....wouldn't that put a smile on your face ;-)
  • Jeff Wallace 5y a physics major i am totally geeking out over what could be achieved in the near future
  • David McCabe 5y

    What happened to the short one's mouth area?
  • Steve Jurvetson 5y

    glad you noticed. I gave him the Voldemort facial to appease a protective mom... =)

    Oh, the place is crawling with security, being the origin of the hydrogen bomb and all… starting with the weapons-laden entry and the spooky dosimeters we had to wear…

    Guard Station

    I had vivid flashbacks to my favorite physics video clip:

    “And suddenly, there it was, the collider itself. Clearly these scientists were up to no good. There was shiny machinery I didn’t recognize everywhere I looked.”

    “How safe is this place?
    This place is perfectly safe.
    Then why are we wearing hard hats?
    It is safe, uh… for safety. We are wearing safety helmets.
    Check. Mate.”
  • Jay Dugger 5y

    We hope to see similar pictures from Tri-Alpha and others here in your photostream, just as we hope for someone's success very soon indeed.

    Thank you for posting.
  • Tomi Tapio K 5y

    Well done, J-man!
  • Toby 5y

    Meter-wide beams! What a device.
  • Steve Jurvetson 5y

    At Technomy, Stewart Brand just gave a shout out to Danny Hills calling fusion "synthetic solar" and said that environmentalists have residual opposition to nuclear and GMO, but embrace synthetic genomics and fusion...
  • Carsten 5y

    An impressive picture, of an even more impressive machine. It is difficult to imagine how the extreme power input of the laser beams can be recovered from the fusion explosion in the center - if it is too small, you don't get enough energy, if it is too large, well, then you have a Problem. Dealing with the Tritium is another can of worms, and probably the reason for most of the security. D-T is what is used to "boost" "physics packages" that go on top "delivery devices".
  • Gomez Addams 5y

    I can't wait for over-unity fusion power. After all, practical fusion power is only ten years and a billion dollars away... just like it has been for the past forty years. :-/

    Not that I'm opposed to it, at least it would generate far less high-level radioactive waste than fission power is creating. But it sure seems to be a tough nut to crack...
  • Carsten 5y

    ...more like 17 billion dollars and 30 years, according to NPR here. But the claims that ITER will deliver over unity power gain are - for the first time - quite believable.
  • photon~wave 5y

  • Steve Jurvetson 5y

    thanks! I especially the shots where it takes a while to grok the scale - like the final composite:

  • photon~wave 5y

    naturenews (18 October 2010) Superlaser fires a blank
  • Steve Jurvetson 5y

    bummer. Optical scatter... key line:

    "Partly because of the optics issue, NIF isn't expected to achieve ignition before 2012."
  • Farshad Sanaee 4y

    ,.~* Great Gang Of Physic *~.,
  • Steve Jurvetson 3y

    "Lawrence Livermore lab achieves record laser energy.
    Livermore's National Ignition Facility has set a record: 192 lasers fired in perfect unison, generating 411 trillion watts of power -- 1,000 times more than the U.S. uses at any instant of time. This historic laser shot involved a shaped pulse of energy 23 billionths of a second long, according to the facility.
    The lab says it will pursue operation at even higher power and higher energy levels to ignite a fusion reaction." (SJMN 3/22/12)
  • markwlonergan 3y

    Thanks for sharing this Steve. Astonishing experiment and result.

    - Mark Lonergan
  • Mike Moody 2y

    Attended a tour yesterday of NIF.
    NIF_Group_Shot_8_6_13 by m.p.moody

    Progress towards ignition is being made and claims of ignition within a 'few months'. Absolutely amazing facility. Most recent star trek movie filmed "Scotty's Engine Room" scenes there for 2 weeks. However Ed Moses left the project a month ago - may not bode well for success short-term. The term "she can't take any more' may sadly be ironic. French, Chinese and Russians are now building their own 'NIF' like facilities.

    Description of NIF - National Ignition Facility at Lawernce Livermore Labs by m.p.moody

    Yesterday was also anniversary of Hiroshima - LLNL scene of several hundred protestors.

    Hiroshima Anniversary Protestors at LLNL - Aug. 6, 2013 by m.p.moody
15 faves
Taken on July 29, 2010
  • ƒ/2.8
  • 7.4 mm
  • 1/50
  • 200
  • Flash (auto, did not fire)
  • Show EXIF
This photo is in 3 albums
This photo is in 2 galleries

Additional info

  • Viewing this photo Public
  • Safety level of this photo Safe
  • S Search
    Photo navigation
    < > Thumbnail navigation
    Z Zoom
    B Back to context