A Ridiculously Brief History of Nuclear Fusion Research, Part II

Part I can be found here.

The Mid to Late Nineteen Hundred & Fifties

Hungarian-born American theoretical physicist, and, later, father of the hydrogen bomb Edward “Big Ed” Teller, working on “Project Matterhorn” at the newly-established Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory, suggested at a group meeting that any nuclear fusion system that confined plasma within concave fields was destined to fail. Teller stated that, from what his research suggested, the only way to achieve a stable plasma configuration was via convex fields, or a “cusp” configuration.

Not THAT Matterhorn, dang it!

Not THAT Matterhorn, dang it!

Following Teller’s remarks, most of his cohorts on Project Matterhorn (which would soon be renamed “Project Sherwood”) quickly wrote up papers stating that Teller’s concerns did not apply to the devices they had been working on. Most of these chaps were working with pinch machines, which did not use magnetic fields. However, this rush of papers was quickly followed by a piece by David “Diamond Dave” Kruskal and Martin “Big Marty” Schwarzschild, which demonstrated the inherent deficits of pinch machines’ designs.

A new-and-improved pinch device, incorporating Kruskal and Schwarzschild’s suggestions, began operating in the UK in 1957. In early ’58, the British physicist Sir John “Big John” Cockcroft announced that this machine, dubbed ZETA, had successfully achieved fusion. However, US physicists soon disproved this claim, showing that the affected neutrons in ZETA’s fusion were, in fact, the result of a combination of different, previous processes. ZETA was decommissioned a decade later.

The first truly successful controlled fusion experiment was conducted at Los Alamos National Laboratory, later in 1958. Using a pinch machine and a cylinder of deuterium, scientists were able to generate magnetic fields that compressed plasma to 15 million degrees Celsius, then squeezed the gas, fused it, and produced neutrons.

The Nineteen Hundred & Sixties

In 1962, scientists at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory used newly-developed laser technology to produce laser fusion. This process involves imploding a target using laser beams, making it probably the coolest scientific procedure in human history.

In 1967, researchers at that same laboratory developed the magnetic mirror, a magnetic confinement device used to trap high energy plasma via a magnetic field. This device consisted of two large magnets arranged so as to create strong individual fields within them and a weaker, connected field betwixt them. Plasma introduced into the between-magnet area would bounce off the stronger fields and return to the middle.

In Novosibirsk, Russia (then the USSR) in 1968, Andrei “Big Drei” Sakharov and his research team produced the world’s first quasistationary fusion reaction. Much of the scientific community was dubious of the team’s claims, but further investigation by British researchers confirmed Sakharov et al.’s claims. This breakthrough led to the development of numerous new fusion devices, as well as the abandonment of others as their designs were repurposed to more closely replicate Sakharov’s team’s device.

The Nineteen Hundred & Seventies

John “Johnny Nucks” Nuckolls first developed the concept of ignition in 1972. Ignition, in this case, is a fusion chain reaction in which superheated helium created during fusion reheats the fuel and starts more reactions. Nuckolls hypothesized that this process would require a one kilojoule laser, prompting the creation of the Central Laser Facility in the UK in 1976.

Project PACER, carried out at Los Alamos throughout the mid-‘70s, explored to possibility of a fusion power system that would detonate small hydrogen bombs in an underground cavity. Project PACER was the only concept of a fusion energy source that could operate with existing technology. However, as it also required a large and infinite supply of nuclear bombs, it was ultimately deemed unfeasible.

Tune in next week for “A Ridiculously Brief History of Nuclear Fusion Research, Part III”.

Photo credit: Olivier Bruchez via StoolsFair / CC BY-SA