Fusion Ignition: What Does The NIF’s 1.3 MJ Yield Mean For Fusion Research?

Earlier this month, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) announced to the world that they had achieved a record 1.3 MJ yield from a fusion experiment at their National Ignition Facility (NIF). Yet what does this mean, exactly? As their press release notes, the main advancement of these results will go towards the US’s nuclear weapons arsenal.

This pertains specifically to the US’s nuclear fusion weapons, which LLNL along with Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) and other facilities are involved in the research and maintenance of. This traces back to the NIF’s roots in the 1990s, when the stockpile stewardship program was set up as an alternative to nuclear weapons testing. Much of this research involves examining how today’s nuclear weapons degrade over time, and ways to modernize the existing arsenal.

In light of this, one may wonder what the impact of these experimental findings from the NIF are beyond merely ensuring that the principle of MAD remains intact. To answer that question, we have to take a look at inertial confinement fusion (ICF), which is the technology at the core of the NIF’s experiments.

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Nuclear Fusion Power Without Regular Tokamaks Or Stellarators

When it comes to nuclear fusion, the most well-known reactor type today is no doubt the tokamak, due to its relatively straight-forward concept of plasma containment. That’s not to say that there aren’t other ways to accomplish nuclear fusion in a way that could conceivably be used in a commercial power plant in the near future.

As we covered previously, another fairly well-known type of fusion reactor is the stellarator, which much like the tokamak, has been around since the 1950s. There are other reactor types from that era, like the Z-pinch, but they seem to have all fallen into obscurity. That is not to say that research on Z-pinch reactors has ceased, or that other reactor concepts — some involving massive lasers — haven’t been investigated or even built since then.

In this article we’ll take a look at a range of nuclear fusion reactor types that definitely deserve a bit more time in the limelight.

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