Last month, the closest star to Earth was in California. For the first time in the laboratory, the world’s largest lasers have caused hydrogen atoms to fuse together in the same energy-producing reaction as the sun. It lasted less than a billionth of a second. But after six decades of work and failure, the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory has proven that it is possible. If fusion becomes a commercial force one day, it will be infinite and carbon-free. In other words, it would change human destiny. As you will see, there is still a long way to go. But after the breakthrough in December, we were invited to tour the lab and meet the team that brought star power to Earth.
Uncontrolled merging is easy – it’s been mastered for so long that movies are black and white. Fusion is what a hydrogen bomb does, releasing energy by causing hydrogen atoms to fuse together. What was impossible was to use the fire of Armageddon into something useful.
The US Department of Energy’s Livermore National Laboratory helps support nuclear weapons and conducts high-energy physics experiments. An hour’s drive east of San Francisco, we met with Livermore Director Kim Budzill at the National Ignition Facility’s history-making laboratory.
Kim Budiel: The National Ignition Facility is the world’s largest and most energetic laser. It was built starting in the 1990s to create laboratory conditions previously only available at the most extreme objects in the universe, such as the center of a giant planet, or the Sun, or a working nuclear weapon. And the goal was to really be able to study these very high-energy, high-density states in great detail.
The National Ignition Facility, or NIF, was built at a cost of $3.5 billion to ignite self-fusion. They tried almost 200 times in 13 years. But like a car with a weak battery, a nuclear “engine” will never turn over.
Scott Pelley: NIF drew a few nicknames.
Kim Budil: It was. Over the years, “Non-Ignitable Object”, “Never Ignitable Object”. Most recently, “Almost Incendiary Object”. So this recent event really put Ignition in the NIF.
Ignition means igniting a fusion reaction that releases more energy than lasers.
Kim Budil: So if you can make it hot enough, dense enough, fast enough, and hold it together long enough, fusion reactions start to become self-sustaining. And that’s exactly what happened here on December 5th.
Last month, a laser shot from this control room put two units of energy into the experiment, the atoms began to fuse, and about three units of energy came out. Tammy Ma, who directs the lab’s laser fusion research initiatives, got a call while waiting for the plane.
Tammy Ma: And I burst into tears. They were just tears of joy. And I actually physically started shaking and… and jumping up and down, you know, near the gate before everybody sat down. Everyone said, “What is this crazy woman doing?”
Tammy Ma is crazy about engineering.
She showed us why the fusion problem would bring anyone to tears. The first is the necessary energy delivered by lasers in these pipes, which are longer than a football field.
Scott Pelley: And how many are there altogether?
Tammy Ma: A total of 192 lasers.
Scott Pelley: Each of these lasers is one of the most energetic in the world, and you have 192 of them.
Tammy Ma: That’s pretty cool, right?
Well, it’s actually really hot, millions of degrees, so they use keys to block the lasers.
The rays strike with a power 1000 times greater than the entire national power grid. The lights don’t go out in your house when they take a picture because the capacitors store the electricity. In the tubes, the laser beams are amplified as they race back and forth, and the flash is a fraction of a second.
Tammy Ma: We have to get to these incredible conditions; hotter, denser than the center of the sun, and so we need all this laser energy to achieve these very high energy densities.
All that impact vaporizes a target almost too small to see.
Scott Pelley: Can I hold this thing?
Michael Staderman: Absolutely
Scott Pelley: Unbelievable. Absolutely amazing.
Michael Staderman’s team creates hollow targets that are loaded with hydrogen at a temperature of 430 degrees below zero.
Michael Stadermann: To make these projectiles we need extreme precision. The shells are almost perfectly round. Their roughness is a hundred times better than a mirror.
If it were not smoother than a mirror, the flaws would cause the atoms to fold unevenly, causing the fusion process to fail.
Scott Pelley: So they have to be as close to perfect as possible.
Michael Stadermann: That’s right. They are, and we believe they are some of the most perfect items on Earth.
Stadermann’s lab strives for perfection by vaporizing carbon and forming a diamond shell. They build 1500 a year to make 150 near perfect.
Michael Staderman: All the components come together under the microscope itself. And then the assembler uses electromechanical steps to put the parts where they need to go – to put them together, and then we apply the glue with the hairs.
Scott Pelley: Hair?
Michael Stadermann: Yes. It’s usually something like an eyelash or similar, or a cat’s whisker.
Scott Pelley: Do you apply glue with a cat’s whisker?
Michael Stadermann: That’s right.
Scott Pelley: Why does it have to be so small?
Michael Stadermann: The laser only gives us a limited amount of energy, and to drive a larger capsule we would need more energy. So this limitation of the object you saw is very large. And despite its large size, this is something we can ride with it.
Scott Pelley: The target can be bigger, but then the laser has to be bigger.
Michael Stadermann: That’s right.
On Dec. 5, they used a thicker target to keep it in shape longer and figured out how to increase the power of the laser shot without damaging the lasers.
Tammy Ma: So this is an example of a target before a shot….
Tammy Ma showed us an undamaged target. The diamond shell you saw is inside a silver cylinder.
This assembly falls into a three story high blue vacuum chamber. It’s hard to see here because it’s full of lasers and instruments.
They call this instrument the Dante because, they told us, it measures the fire of hell. One physicist said: “You should see the target we blew up on December 5th.”
Which made us ask, “Can we?”
Scott Pelley: Have you seen this before?
Tammy Ma: This is the first time I’ve seen it.
For Tammy Ma and the world, it’s the first glimpse of what’s left of a purpose-built assembly line that changed history—an artifact like Bell’s first telephone or Edison’s light bulb.
Scott Pelley: This thing is going to the Smithsonian Institution.
The target cylinder was blasted into oblivion, the copper support that held it peeled back.
Scott Pelley: The explosion at the end of this was hotter than the sun.
Tammy Ma: It was hotter than the center of the sun. We were able to reach temperatures that were the hottest in the entire solar system.
Which would result in an astronomical change in electrical power. Unlike today’s nuclear power plants, which split atoms, their fusion is many times more powerful, with little long-term radiation. And it’s easy to turn off, so no meltdowns. But it will be difficult to get from the first ignition to the power plant.
Scott Pelley: How many shots do you make in a day?
Tammy Ma: On average, we do a little more than one injection a day.
Scott Pelley: If this were theoretically a commercial power plant, how many shots per day would it take?
Tammy Ma: It would take about ten shots per second. And another big challenge, of course, is not only increasing the repetition rate, but also increasing the profit from the targets by a factor of about 100x.
Not only would the reactions have to produce 100 times more energy, but the power plant would require 900,000 perfect diamond shells per day. Also, lasers should be much more efficient. Remember the December breakout that injected two units of energy and got three? Well, it took 300 units of power to launch the lasers. By that standard, it was 300 in, three out. That detail was not the focus of the Energy Department’s December press conference, which linked the advance to an unlikely timeline.
Energy Secretary Jennifer Grenholm at a Department of Energy press conference: Today’s announcement is a huge step forward toward the President’s goal of achieving commercial fusion within a decade.
Scott Pelley: When you heard that President Biden’s goal was commercial fusion power ten years from now, what did you think?
Charles Zaife: I thought it was stupid.
Charles Seif is a mathematician by training, science writer, and New York University professor who wrote a book in 2008 about the fusion energy hype.
Charles Zaife: I don’t want to downplay the fact that this is a real achievement. Ignition is a milestone that people have been trying to accomplish for years. I fear that there are so many technical hurdles, even after this great achievement – that ten years is a pipe dream.
Those obstacles, Seif says, include increasing Livermore’s reach. The December shot created enough excess power to make two pots of coffee. Obstacles can be overcome, Seif says, but not quickly.
Charles Zaife: I bet we won’t have it until 2050.
However, contrary to Charles Seif’s prophecy, more than 30 private companies are developing different approaches to fusion power, including using magnets rather than lasers. Over the past 13 months, these companies have received 3 billion in private money — including bets from Bill Gates and Google. Amidst all this speculation, Lawrence Livermore director Kim Budil is certain of one thing.
Scott Pelley: Can you do it again?
Kim Budil: Absolutely.
They are going to try again next month. Budil agrees that the obstacles are huge. But she told us that the commercial power of fusion could be demonstrated in 20 years or so, with enough funding and commitment. We compared the first ignition to the Wright brothers’ first flight, which covered only 120 feet.
Kim Budil: It’s one thing to believe – that science is possible – that you can create the conditions, it’s another thing to see it in action. And it’s a really great feeling after working for 60 years to get to this point to make the first flight.
From jumping from a puddle to supersonic flight, 44 years have passed. Whether nuclear power will be around in 10 or 50 years is now largely an engineering problem. Lawrence Livermore proved that a star is born from a car.
Produced by Andy Court. Associate Producer Annabel Hanflig. Broadcaster Michelle Karim. Edited by Jorge H. Garcia.