Important People, Important Discoveries, World-Changing Inventions

A Ridiculously Brief History of Nuclear Fusion Research, Part III

Part I can be found here, whilst Part II can be found here.

The Nineteen Hundred & Eighties

In 1983, the NOVETTE laser was completed at Lawrence Livermore, followed a year later by the multi-beam NOVA laser. Thanks to massive advances in laser technology throughout the decade, by 1989 NOVA would be capable of producing 120 kilojoules of infrared light in a single nanosecond pulse.

Scientists at the Laboratory for Laser Energetics at the University of Rochester developed frequency-tripling crystal that would transform infrared laser beams into ultraviolet beams. Further laser amplification was developed in 1985 by US scientist Donna “Big Donna” Strickland and French scientist Gerard “Big Gerry” Mourou. Their “chirping” technique changed a single laser pulse’s wavelength into a full spectrum, then amplified the laser at each wavelength and reconstituted the beam into a single color. Chirp pulsed amplification, as the process came to be known, was instrumental in further technological advances, particularly for weaponized fusion.

Pew pew!

Pew pew!

In 1987, data collected by NASA’s Voyager 2 probe as it passed by Uranus was analyzed by Akira Hasegawa. Hasegawa noted that, in a dipolar magnetic field, fluctuations compressed plasma sans the usual energy loss, an observation that would become the basis for the Levitated Dipole branch of fusion technology and research.

The Nineteen Hundred & Nineties

The world’s first controlled release of fusion power took place at the Culham Centre for Fusion Energy in Oxfordshire, England, in 1991 at the Joint European Torus, the world’s largest operational magnetic confinement plasma physics experiment. Thankfully, this release of fusion power was intentional and did not annihilate anything at all.

Beginning in 1992 and continuing throughout the decade, numerous advocates for laser fusion technology drummed up support for ongoing research. In the late ‘90s, the United States Congress approved funding for the US Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) to continue their work in the field.

In 1995, a massive fusor—a device which uses an electric field to heat ions to conditions suitable for nuclear fusion—was built at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Called HOMER, the device is still in operation today. Smaller, similar fusors were also built around this time at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and in Europe.

1996 saw the US Army giving the public its first look at the Z-machine, a device that generates a magnetic pulse which, upon striking a liner of tungsten wires, is capable of discharging 18 million amperes of energy in less than 100 nanoseconds. The Z-machine is an effective way to test the very high energy, very high temperature conditions (up to 2 BILLION degrees Fahrenheit) conditions of nuclear fusion.

The Levitated dipole fusion device was developed by a team of Columbia University and MIT researchers in the late ‘90s. Consisting of a superconducting electromagnet floating in a saucer-shaped vacuum chamber, the device swirls plasma around the chamber and fuses it along the center axis.

The Two Thousand & Aughts

In early 2002, Rusi Taleyarkhan published the findings of his team at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Taleyarkhan reported that he and his cohorts had recorded measurements of neutron and tritium output consistent with successful fusion, following a series of acoustic cavitation experiments. When these results were later discovered to have been falsified, Taleyarkhan was found guilty of misconduct by the Office of Naval Research and disbarred from receiving federal funding for more than two years.

A machine capable of producing fusion and small enough to fit “on a lab bench” was developed by a group of researchers at UCLA in 2005. The device used lithium tantalate to generate sufficient voltage to smash deuterium atoms together, though the process generated no net power.

In the early- to mid-2000s, researchers at MIT started investigating the possibility of using fusors, similar to the UCLA team’s device, for powering and propelling vehicles in space. In separate trials, a team from Phoenix Nuclear Labs developed a fusor that could be used as a neutron source for medical isotope production.

To infinity and BEYOND!

To infinity and BEYOND!

In 2008, an exceptionally brainy 14-year-old whippersnapper by the name of Taylor Wilson achieved successful nuclear fusion using a homemade fusor.

The Two Thousand & Tens

In 2012, a published paper demonstrated a method of dense plasma focus that could achieve temperatures of 1.8 billion degrees Celsius. This temperature is sufficient for boron fusion, and the method produced fusion reactions that occurred almost exclusively within a contained plasmoid (a cage of current and plasma trapped in a magnetic field), which is a necessary condition for generating net power.

Lockheed Martin’s Skunk Works announced the development of a high-beta fusion reactor in October 2014. Higher velocity, lower cost space travel, including deep space exploration would be made possible by this compact fusion reactor, as the above-mentioned MIT team postulated. Skunk Works researchers hope to have a functioning prototype of a 100-megawatt version built by 2017, and to have the device ready for regular operation by 2022.

And then it’s now and I don’t know what happens next!

Laser Photo credit: melissa.meister via DesignHunt / CC BY-SA
Space Exploration Photo credit: NASA Goddard Photo and Video via / CC BY

Important People, Important Discoveries, War: What Is It Good For? (Absolutely Nothin'!), World-Changing Inventions

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

Important People, Important Discoveries, War: What Is It Good For? (Absolutely Nothin'!), World-Changing Inventions

A Ridiculously Brief History of Nuclear Fusion Research, Part I

I’m not gonna lie: nuclear fusion is a complex conundrum, and I will readily admit that I do not fully understand it. But, it’s an important scientific and historical concept nonetheless, and one deserving of at least a few minutes of your reading time. Follow along as we breeze all too quickly through the history of nuclear fusion research.

The Nineteen Hundred & Twenties

In 1920, English chemist and physicist Francis William “Big Frank” Aston discovered that four hydrogen atoms had a heavier total mass equivalent than the total mass of one helium atom. This, of course, meant that net energy can be released by combining hydrogen atoms to form helium. This discovery was also mankind’s first look into the chemical mechanism by which stars produce energy in such massive quantities.

Throughout the decade, English astronomer, physicist, and mathematician Sir Arthur Stanley “Big Art” Eddington championed his own hypothesis that the proton-proton chain reaction* was the primary “engine” of the sun.

The Nineteen Hundred & Thirties

Things stayed pretty quiet until 1939, when German physicist and future Nobel Prize winner (in physics, natch) Hans Bethe verified a theory that showed that beta decay* and quantum tunneling* in the sun’s core could potentially convert protons into neutrons. This reaction, of course, produces deuterium rather than a simple diproton, and deuterium, as we all know, fuses with other reactions for increased energy output.

The Nineteen Hundred & Forties

Thanks to World War II, the Manhattan Project became the world’s biggest nuclear fusion project in 1942. We all know how that ended.

Pesky monkeys!

Pesky monkeys!

The UK Atomic Energy Authority registered the world’s first patent for a fusion reactor in 1946. Invented by English physicist and future Nobel Laurate in physics Sir George Paget “Big George” Thomson and British crystallographer Moses “Big Moses” Blackman, it was the first detailed examination of the Z-pinch concept.*

In 1947, two team of scientists in the United Kingdom performed a series of small experiments in nuclear fusion, expanding the size and scope of their experiments as they went along. Later experiments were inspired in part by the Huemul Project undertaken by German expat scientist Ronald “Big Ron” Richter in Argentina in 1949.

The Early Nineteen Hundred & Fifties

The first successful manmade fusion device—the boosted fission weapon, which doesn’t sound like something you should worry about at all—was first tested in 1951. This miniature nuclear bomb (again, don’t worry about it, I’m sure it’s fine) used a small amount of fusion fuel to increase the rate and yield of a fission reaction.

New and “improved” version of the device appeared in the years that followed. “Ivy Mike” in 1952 was the first example of a “true” fusion weapon, while “Castle Bravo” in 1954 was the first practical example of the technology. These devices used uncontrolled fusion reactions to release neutrons, which cause the atoms in the surrounding fission fuel to split apart almost instantaneously, increasing the effectiveness of explosive weapons. Unlike normal fission weapons (“normal” bombs), fusion weapons have no practical upper limit to their explosiveness.

"Ivy Mike" blowin' up real good, November 1952.

“Ivy Mike” blowin’ up real good, November 1952.

Spurred on by Richter’s findings (which were later found to be fake), James Leslie “Big Jim” Tuck, a physicist formerly working with one of the UK teams but by then working in Los Alamos, introduced the pinch concept to United States scientists. Tuck produced the excellently-named Perhapsatron, an early fusion power device based on the Z-pinch concept. The first Perhapsatron prototype was completed in 1953, and new and improved models followed periodically until research into the pinch concept more or less ended in the early ‘60s.

Be sure to join us next week for “A Ridiculously Brief History of Nuclear Fusion Research, Part II”.

* which we haven’t even remotely the time, energy, or intellect to get into here

Manhattan Project Photo credit: Manchester Library via / CC BY-SA
Ivy Mike Photo credit: The Official CTBTO Photostream via / CC BY

Important People, Important Discoveries

Laying Down the Law(s) with Big Joe Gay-Lussac

The deceptively-named Gay-Lussac’s Law is actually more or less two laws, both concerning the properties of gases—and one of them wasn’t actually discovered by Gay-Lussac. When Gay-Lussac’s Law is invoked these days, it is usually in reference to the French chemist’s first notable discovery regarding the combining of volumes (the one he did discover). No matter what anyone, scientist or otherwise, tells you, however, don’t turn your back on Gay-Lussac’s Law, Part II—it’s just as important and twice as dangerous!

Gay-Lussac’s Law of Combining Volumes

“The ratio between the volumes of reactant gases and the products can be expressed in simple whole numbers.” – Joseph Louis Gay-Lussac, 1808

Gay-Lussac discovered that, for example, two volumes of hydrogen combined with one volume of oxygen would react to create one volume of gaseous water.

Gay-Lussac's plaque in the Chemistry Hall of Fame.

Gay-Lussac’s plaque in the Chemistry Hall of Fame.

Building on Big Joe’s findings, contemporary Italian scientist (deep breath) Lorenzo Romano Amedeo Carlo Avogadro di Quaregna e di Cerreto, more succinctly-known as Amedeo Avogadro, developed Avogadro’s Law, which states that, at equal temperature and pressure, equal volumes of gas would contain equal numbers of molecules.

Avogadro’s Law as not widely accepted by chemists until a third dude got involved. Italian chemist Stanislao Cannizzaro convinced the First International Chemical Congress of 1860 of Avogadro’s findings’ accuracy.

Guy-Lussac’s Law of Pressure-Temperature (In Your Face, Amontons)

Though it’s commonly referred to Amontons’s Law of Pressure-Temperature, this one is pure Gay-Lussac. Okay, that’s totally not true. In 1702, Guillaume Amontons discovered the relationship betwixt the pressure of a fixed mass of gas at constant volume and its temperature. Amontons’s Law states that:

“The pressure of a gas of fixed mass and fixed volume is directly proportional to the gas’s absolute temperature.”

In essence, if a gas’s temperature increases, and its mass and volume are held constant, then so, too, will its pressure increase. Mathematically, this law can be expressed in a simple formula that is nonetheless still complex to type out here.

Anyway, Gay-Lussac got his name amended to Amonton’s Law round about 1802, when he expanded on Amontons’ findings with additional research on other gases that were unavailable to the original researcher due to the technical limitations of the era.

Photo credit: Leo Reynolds via / CC BY-NC-SA

Historical Science & Technology, Important People, Important Discoveries, Science

In Brief: Astronomy in the Renaissance

Thanks to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, among other things, the Renaissance period is perhaps best known for its art and culture. But science went through a real Renaissance during the Renaissance as well. Astronomy, in particular, was a field that saw a number of significant discoveries.

Astronaissance? Renaisstronomy?

As everyone knows, astronomy in the pre-Renaissance Middle Ages was based on Ptolemy’s geocentric model (i.e., Earth is the center of the universe). It is highly unlikely, however, that many astronomers of the Middle Ages had actually read Ptolemy’s writings. Derivations of Ptolemy’s work were more common points of reference, including a series of textbooks known collectively as the Theorica Planetarum—roughly translated, “Planetary Theory”.


To predict planetary motion across the heavens, Renaissance astronomers utilized the Alfonsine Tables. These tables were based on models presented in Ptolemy’s Almagest, but incorporated a number of modifications developed by later stargazers.

Round about 1450 CE, Austrian astronomer Georg “Gorgeous George” von Peuerbach took up a lecturer’s position at the University of Vienna, in the heart of the land of tiny sausages. A student of Peuerbach’s with the name of a dinosaur discovered in Montana, Regiomontanus, collected lecture notes and published them as the Theoricae Novae Planetarum in the 1470s. This “New Planetary Theory” then became the go-to textbook for advanced astronomy.

In 1496, the Epitome of the Almagest, a work begun by Peuerbach and completed by Regiomontanus after his mentor’s death, was published. A summary of, commentary on, and companion piece to Ptolemy’s earlier work, its publication gave many scientists across Europe their first exposure the latest advances in Ptolemaic astronomy.

Copernicus Drops the Mic


Nicolas “Big Nick” Copernicus was the first of the New Wave of Renaissance Astronomers, taught with the Theoricae Novae Planetarum, to sign with a major label. In the early 1510s, Copernicus began to research a wild new theory—that the Earth revolves around the Sun!

For the rest of his days, Big Nick attempted to prove heliocentrism via a mathematical proof. His magnum opus, De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium (or “On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres”), was finally published in 1543 as he was literally on his deathbed. Though the book proved that the sun, not the Earth, is the center of our solar system, Copernicus’ work is not as revolutionary as it is often deemed. The latter scientist’s writing is really more of an extension of the latter’s, as Copernicus follows Ptolemy’s methods and order of presentation to deduce a logical extension of and conclusion to the Almagest.

Photo credit: Norman B. Leventhal Map Center at the BPL via / CC BY