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.
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.
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!