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Thursday, 14 July 2011

Igniting our energy future

Science and Technology Review
Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL)
July/August 2011

MEETING the nation’s—and the world’s—growing demand for electricity is one of the most urgent challenges facing society and the scientific community. Even with improvements in energy efficiency and conservation, a critical need exists to reduce dependence on imported fuels, decrease emissions, and stabilize greenhouse gas concentrations. Safe, environmentally sustainable, commercially attractive sources of baseload electricity are needed with an inherent security of supply and the capacity to meet the level of demand. Renewable sources such as solar, wind, and hydro will play an increasingly important role, but they are not expected to meet the majority of global baseload electricity needs.

The main alternative to burning fossil fuels is nuclear energy. Although attractive on many counts (no carbon emissions, for example), conventional nuclear fission plants face significant challenges such as cost to build; time to license; safety and proliferation issues associated with operations; enrichment; reprocessing; and high-level, long-lived nuclear waste.

The U.S. energy situation becomes particularly acute in the period leading up to the middle part of this century, when the current fleet of nuclear and coal power plants will need to be replaced. “As a national lab, we must respond to the requirement to transform the energy landscape and do so soon enough to make a difference,” says physicist Mike Dunne, Livermore’s program director for Laser Fusion Energy.

The Livermore-led effort to address the need for safe, secure, and sustainable energy is called Laser Inertial Fusion Energy, or LIFE. The development activities are headed by Dunne, with contributions by dozens of Livermore physicists, engineers, and materials scientists, along with major input from many other national laboratories, universities, and industry partners. LIFE draws on the success of the National Ignition Facility (NIF), the world’s largest and most energetic laser system, and the sustained investment in inertial fusion energy by the Department of Energy and its predecessor agencies over the past five decades. Inertial fusion uses powerful lasers to compress and heat the hydrogen isotopes deuterium and tritium to the point of fusion and thereby liberate more energy than was required to ignite the reaction.
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