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Inside the nuclear fusion breakthrough that could be a step to unlimited clean energy in the distant future

Inside the nuclear fusion breakthrough
Nuclear Fusion: Inside the breakthrough that could change our world | 60 Minutes 13:11

Last month, the nearest star to the Earth was in California. In a laboratory, for the first time, the world's largest lasers forced atoms of hydrogen to fuse together in the same kind of energy producing reaction that fires the sun. It lasted less than a billionth of a second. But, after six decades of toil and failure, the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory proved it could be done. If fusion becomes commercial power one day, it would be endless and carbon free. In other words, it would change human destiny. As you'll see, there's far to go. But after December's breakthrough, we were invited to tour the lab and meet the team that brought star power down to Earth.

Uncontrolled fusion is easy--mastered so long ago the films are in black and white. Fusion is what a hydrogen bomb does, releasing energy by forcing atoms of hydrogen to fuse together. What's been impossible is harnessing the fires of Armageddon into something useful. 

The U.S. Department of Energy's Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory helps maintain nuclear weapons and experiments with high-energy physics. An hour east of San Francisco, we met Livermore's director, Kim Budil, in the lab that made history, the National Ignition Facility. 

Kim Budil: The National Ignition Facility is the world's largest, most energetic laser. It was built starting in the 1990s, to create conditions in the laboratory that had previously only been accessible in the most extreme objects in the universe, like the center of giant planets, or the sun, or in operating nuclear weapons. And the goal was to really be able to study that kind of very high-energy, high-density condition in a lot of detail.

  Kim Budil

The National Ignition Facility, or NIF, was built for $3.5 billion to ignite self-sustaining fusion. They tried nearly 200 times over 13 years. But like a car with a weak battery, the atomic 'engine' would never turn over.

Scott Pelley: NIF drew some nicknames.

Kim Budil: It did. For many years the "Not Ignition Facility", the "Never Ignition Facility." More recently the "Nearly Ignition Facility." So, this recent event has really put the Ignition in the NIF.

Ignition means igniting a fusion reaction that puts out more energy than the lasers put in.

Kim Budil: So if you can get it hot enough, dense enough, fast enough, and hold it together long enough, the fusion reactions start to self-sustain. And that's really what happened here on December 5th.

The control room at the National Ignition Facility

Last month, the laser shot fired from this control room put two units of energy into the experiment, atoms began fusing, and about three units of energy came out. Tammy Ma, who leads the lab's laser fusion research initiatives, got the call while waiting for a plane.

Tammy Ma: And I burst into tears. It was just tears of joy. And I actually physically started shaking and-- and jumping up and down in, you know, at the gate before everybody boards. Everybody was, like, "What is that crazy woman doin'?"

Tammy Ma is crazy about engineering.

The tubes that deliver energy to the lasers

She showed us why the problem of fusion would bring anyone to tears. First, there's the energy required which is delivered by lasers in these tubes that are longer than a football field. 

Scott Pelley: And how many are there altogether?

Tammy Ma: 192 total lasers. 

Scott Pelley: Each one 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, pretty hot actually, millions of degrees, which is why they use keys to lock up the lasers. 

The beams strike with a power 1,000 times greater than the entire national power grid. Your lights don't go out at home when they take a shot because capacitors store the electricity. In the tubes, the laser beams amplify by racing 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 of that laser energy to get to these very high energy densities. 

All that wallop vaporizes a target nearly too small to see. 

The lasers' target

Scott Pelley: Can I hold this thing?

Michael Stadermann: Absolutely

Scott Pelley: Unbelievable. Absolutely amazing.

Michael Stadermann's team builds the hollow target shells that are loaded with hydrogen at 430 degrees below zero.

Michael Stadermann: The precision that we need for making these shells is extreme. The shells are almost perfectly round. They have a roughness that is a hundred times better than a mirror. 

  Michael Stadermann

If it wasn't smoother than a mirror, imperfections would make the implosion of atoms uneven causing a fusion fizzle. 

Scott Pelley: So these need to be as close to perfect as humanly possible.

Michael Stadermann: That's right. That's right, and we do think they are among the most perfect items that we have on Earth. 

Stadermann's lab pursues perfection by vaporizing carbon and forming the shell out of diamond. They build 1,500 a year to make 150 nearly perfect.

Michael Stadermann: All the components are brought together under the microscope itself.  And then the assembler uses electromechanical stages to put the parts where they're supposed to go-- move them together, and then we apply glue using a hair.

Scott Pelley: A hair?

Michael Stadermann: Yeah. Usually something like an eyelash or is similar, or a cat whisker.

Scott Pelley: You apply glue with a cat whisker?

Michael Stadermann: That's right.

Scott Pelley: Why does it have to be so small?

Michael Stadermann: The laser gives us only a finite amount of energy, and to drive a bigger capsule we would need more energy. So it's a constraint of the facility that you've seen that is very large. And despite its big size, this is about what we can drive with it.

Scott Pelley: The target could be larger, but then the laser would have to be larger. 

Michael Stadermann: That's right.

On December 5th, they used a thicker target so it would hold its shape longer and they figured out how to boost the power of the laser shot without damaging the lasers. 

Tammy Ma: So this is an example of a target before the shot…

An intact target assembly

Tammy Ma showed us an intact target assembly. That diamond shell you saw is inside that silver-colored cylinder.

The vacuum chamber

This assembly goes into a blue vacuum chamber, three stories tall. It's hard to see here because it's bristling with lasers and instruments. 


This instrument they call Dante because, they told us, it measures the fires of hell. One physicist said, "You should see the target we blasted December 5th." 

Which made us ask, "Could we?"

Scott Pelley: Have you seen this before?

Tammy Ma: This is the first time I'm seeing it. 

The target that was blasted December 5th

For Tammy Ma, and for the world, this is the first look at what's left of the target assembly that changed history—an artifact like Bell's first phone or Edison's light bulb. 

Scott Pelley: This thing is going to end up in the Smithsonian.

The target cylinder was blasted to oblivion, the copper support that held it was peeled backward.

Scott Pelley: The explosion on the end of this was hotter than the sun.

Tammy Ma: It was hotter than the center of the sun. We were able to achieve temperatures that were the hottest in the entire solar system. 

Which would make an astronomical change in electric power. Unlike today's nuclear plants, which split atoms apart, fusing them is many times more powerful, with little long-term radiation. And it's easy to turn off, so no meltdowns. But getting from the first ignition to a powerplant will be hard.

Scott Pelley: How many shots do you take in a day?

Tammy Ma: We take, on average, a little more than one shot per day.  

Scott Pelley: If this was theoretically a commercial power plant, how many shots a day would be required?

Tammy Ma: Approximately ten shots per second would be required. And the other big challenge, of course, is not just increasing the repetition rate, but also getting the gain out of the targets to go up to about a factor of 100.

  Tammy Ma

Not only would the reactions have to produce 100 times more energy, but a power plant would need 900,000 perfect diamond shells a day. Also, the lasers would have to be much more efficient. Remember, December's breakthrough put two units of energy in and got three out? Well, it took 300 units of power to fire the lasers. By that standard, it was 300 in, three out. That detail was not front and center at the Department of Energy's December news conference which fused the advance with an unlikely timeline. 

Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm at Department of Energy news conference: Today's announcement is a huge step forward to 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 in a decade, you thought what?

Charles Seife: I thought it was nonsense. 

Charles Seife is a trained mathematician, science author and professor at New York University who wrote a 2008 book on the hyping of fusion power.

  Charles Seife

Charles Seife: I don't wanna diminish the fact that this is a real achievement. Ignition is a milestone that people have been trying for-- to do for years.  I'm afraid that there're so many technical hurdles, even after this great achievement-- that ten years is a pipe dream.

Those hurdles, Seife says, include scaling up Livermore's achievement. The December shot generated about enough excess power to boil two pots of coffee. The hurdles might be overcome, Seife says, but not soon.

Charles Seife: I have a running bet going that we're not going to have it by 2050.

Still, betting against Charles Seife's prophesy, are more than 30 private companies designing various approaches to fusion power—including using magnets, not lasers. $3 billion in private money flowed into those companies in the last 13 months—including bets by Bill Gates and Google. Amid all this speculation, Lawrence Livermore's director, Kim Budil, is certain of one thing. 

Scott Pelley: Can you do it again?

Kim Budil: Absolutely.

They're going to try again next month. Budil agrees the obstacles are enormous. But she told us commercial fusion power could be demonstrated in 20 years or so, with enough funding and dedication. We likened the first ignition to the first Wright Brothers flight which covered only 120 feet. 

Kim Budil: It's one thing to believe-- that the science is possible-- that the conditions can be created, it's another to see it in action. And it really is a remarkable feeling after working for 60 years to get to this point to have first-- taken that first flight.

It was 44 years from a puddle jump to supersonic flight. Whether fusion power is 10 or 50 years away is now mainly an engineering problem. Lawrence Livermore has proven—that from a machine—a star is born. 

Produced by Andy Court. Associate producer, Annabelle Hanflig. Broadcast associate, Michelle Karim. Edited by Jorge J. García.

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