Energy from “laser fusion” – the perpetual motion machine of the 21st century.

Thomas Friedman writes on the New York Times Op-Ed page about an intriguing possibility: using precisely tuned laser energy to initiate a fusion reaction. The process potentially could be used to generate electricity, as Friedman puts it, with “the reliability of coal, without the carbon dioxide, all the cleanliness of wind and solar, without having to worry about the sun not shining or the wind not blowing, and all the scale of nuclear, without all the waste.”

Op-Ed Columnist – The Next Really Cool Thing –

I began my tour there [at the National Ignition Facility] with the N.I.F. director, Edward Moses. He was holding up a tiny gold can the size of a Tylenol tablet, and inside it was plastic pellet, the size of a single peppercorn, that would be filled with frozen hydrogen.

The way the N.I.F. works is that all 192 lasers pour their energy into a target chamber, which looks like a giant, spherical, steel bathysphere that you would normally use for deep-sea exploration. At the center of this target chamber is that gold can with its frozen hydrogen pellet. Once one of those pellets is heated and compressed by the lasers, it reaches temperatures over 800 million degrees Fahrenheit, “far greater than exists at the center of our sun,” said Moses.

More importantly, each crushed pellet gives off a burst of energy that can then be harnessed to heat up liquid salt and produce massive amounts of steam to drive a turbine and create electricity for your home — just like coal does today. Only this energy would be carbon-free, globally available, safe and secure and could be integrated seamlessly into our current electric grid.

Wow! Sounds great. Really. My inner geek is in Nirvana.

I have just one question: where does the energy to create the frozen hydrogen pellets come from? The freezing point of hydrogen is roughly -258°C, or just 14° above absolute zero.

Oh, and finding the energy to fire 192 high-power lasers isn’t trivial, either.

Great idea. But practical?


4 comments so far

  1. Tom Awtry on

    I agree with your, posting and I guess we straddled with the economy, but lets take a look at the brighter side of possible opportunity that may laid ahead of us.

    • markkeating on

      Thanks for the comment!

      I absolutely agree that developing new, safe, reliable, generation methods will pay many dividends down the road. Reducing or eliminating dependence on foreign oil and reviving America’s manufacturing sector spring to mind immediately. There is also something to be said about these kinds of projects with very lofty goals attracting more people to careers in science and engineering – much like the Apollo project did.

      I just worry that holding up something this bright and shiny might distract needed attention and resources from existing, if imperfect, solutions that are already at hand (wind, solar, geothermal).

  2. Jeff Hess on

    Shalom Mark,

    Fortunately, fusion doesn’t ignore the Laws of Thermodynamics the way perpetual motion schemes do.

    Solar, wind, water power systems are all driven by the fusion reactor we call Sol.

    It’s true, you’re absolutely right, that we must not allow research on fusion power — the ultimate long-term solution — to improperly distract us from the immediate goal of finding alternatives for fossil fuel systems.

    But neither should we forgo the necessary research that will ultimately make all alternative power sources obsolete.



  3. […] 0904: Energy from “laser fusion” – the perpetual motion machine of the 21st century. […]

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