30 September 2013

One More Step Towards Unlimited Energy

Saturday, Oregon played UC Berkeley. If you google "Oregon football cal" you will get 36,200 results. By contrast, if you google "nif break-even" you will get 2 results. Let me explain why that seems skewed.

1948 was a big year for information. That year the transistor was invented and Claude Shannon coined the term "bit," the first description of information as a unit of measure. A half century later, in 1998, the dot-com boom was underway and we now live in a world of essentially free and unlimited information. (And as drones and the NSA become more adept at spying, perhaps a world of unlimited knowledge about the world and even our neighbors.) It seems fair to say that this has changed things.

Saturday, the National Ignition Facility (NIF in the search term above) in Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (located in Silicon Valley) hit a break-even point in their experiments towards creating nuclear fusion. Their goal is ignition, as their name would suggest. At ignition, they will have reached a point at which the process of nuclear fusion generates enough heat to sustain on its own. At break-even - the point they just reached - the energy generated from fusion is equal to the energy going into the process from a bombardment of 192 lasers. Break even is not self-sustaining but it is a huge step towards ignition. And its attainment is no longer a mere theoretical possibility but has actually been achieved. It can be added to the list of mankind's accomplishments along with the first strokes of a combustion engine. At this point they can measure the energy but not harness it - so in this sense it is not yet practical. But still it's a significant step.

Despite this progress, it is still uncertain whether anyone will ever achieve nuclear fusion. Still, the promise is mind boggling. Essentially, nuclear fusion would do for energy what the transistor did for information: make it, for all practical purposes, unlimited. 

Given its potential, you might think that this big milestone would warrant massive headlines. Or at least as many headlines as, say, Oregon football. Oregon's Saturday win may be a step towards a national championship. If so, that's cool. The NIF's break-even point may be a step towards a world of unlimited energy. If so, that's historic. 

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