Shine On, Tiny Little Star

Inside the National Ignition Facility, Livermore scientists fire 192 lasers at a tiny grain of hydrogen fuel in hopes of achieving nuclear fusion. Mathew Scott for Newsweek

Here it is, just another techno-nirvana nestled within the verdant undulations of the East Bay area of San Francisco. Yellow bikes, unlocked, abound. Ride yours to a nearby server farm where one sleek obsidian processing cube is cutely adorned with a pair of googly eyes. At lunch, a game of shirtless volleyball erupts under the beneficent California sun. Reeds sway along the banks of a man-made pond behind the cafeteria, which is, of course, outfitted with one bin for composting and another for recycling. The sweatshirts of top colleges are worn as casual statements of superior intelligence: Stanford, Penn, et al. Wild turkeys crowd into the turning lane of a street. A jackrabbit skips into the jaundiced brush. The incidence of ponytails sported by middle-aged male engineers is far above the East Coast mean.

But the omnipresent signs warning against conducting classified conversation remind visitors this is not just the playground for some Facebook or Google imitator. The Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory is more like Facebook's forefather, a Bay Area research center born of Cold War necessity and now trying to harness Digital Age ingenuity. Those silly eyes decorate a server that shares a vast and pristine chamber with Sequoia, one of the most powerful computers on Earth, capable of 20 quadrillion operations per second. And those turkeys (along with geese and, sometimes, mountain lions) gambol in the shadows of the National Ignition Facility (NIF), where researchers recently achieved a major breakthrough in nuclear fusion, which could one day provide extremely clean energy at little cost and no harm to the environment or human life.

One of Livermore's supercomputers. Mathew Scott

The NIF concentrates 192 laser beams (the world's most powerful; Livermore loves superlatives) on a pellet of hydrogen fuel two millimeters in diameter, suspended in a hollow chamber 10 millimeters in length called a hohlraum made out of gold and depleted uranium. The laser beams travel 4,900 feet, through a series of amplifying mirrors, into an enormous aluminum orb, the target chamber, where the hohlraum is suspended in a vacuum cooled to a brisk minus 426 degrees. The laser beams first hit the walls of the hohlraum, turning into x-rays that then travel (hopefully) toward the fuel pellet whose interior is lined with tritium and deuterium, isotopes of hydrogen.

We are now several billionths of a second into one of the most complicated physical reactions attempted on Earth.

When the x-rays hit the capsule containing the frozen tritium-deuterium fuel, the plastic explodes, pushing back at the fuel with an inward force. This causes the nuclei of hydrogen to violently couple in a process known as fusion. As they join, they also release a vast amount of energy in accordance with Albert Einstein's law of mass-energy equivalence (you may know it as E = mc2). This is essentially the same process that occurs, on a much grander scale, inside the sun, as well as inside a hydrogen (or thermonuclear) bomb. Though the whole thing takes about 20 billionths of a second, the lasers have to converge in perfect spatial and temporal symmetry for a significant fusion reaction to take place. Livermore's literature compares it to pitching a strike at Dodger Stadium—from a mound in San Francisco.

Crystal Jaing, a biologist at Livermore, has developed a microbial detection array that can test for thousands of pathogens. Mathew Scott for Newsweek

Well, strike one. In a paper published last month in Nature, NIF scientists revealed that the energy released by the fusion of the hydrogen atoms in a reaction conducted last September was greater than the energy that went into the pellet (though still not nearly enough to sustain prolonged fusion). While the dream of a sustained fusion reaction (i.e., ignition) remains distant, it just got a little closer. After many years of frustration at NIF, the pitches are no longer kicking up dirt in front of the plate.

"A critical step on the path to ignition" is what Mark Herrmann, a fusion scientist at Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico, deemed the recent Livermore achievement. The underlying implication is that many more steps remain until we can talk about fusion as an energy source without sounding like hopeless eco-dreamers.

Mathew Scott


The people here at Livermore are pretty stoked, to use an appropriate colloquialism. "This is the Wright Brothers plane of fusion energy," says Peter J.K. Wisoff, a former astronaut who is now one of the directors of Livermore's fusion project. The modern-day Wright Flyer directly in front of us is the target chamber, which weighs 287,000 pounds. A portion of Star Trek: Into Darkness was filmed here, and it's easy to see what brought a Hollywood location scout here: With countless monitors and laser ducts protruding from its surface, the target chamber does look sinister. A low machine hum only enhances the effect.

Indeed, NIF's fundamental purpose is bellicose, as is the overarching mission of Livermore. The laboratory, founded in 1952, was supposed to dream up weapons for that moment when the détente with the Soviet Union finally heated up. The Cold War never did rise to a boil, but the nuclear legacy of the 20th century has carried over into the 21st: 7,700 aging warheads that have to be maintained, in case Washington decides that the nation's foreign policy aims are best achieved by nuclear annihilation. Today, nuclear "stewardship" is the mission assigned to Livermore by the Department of Energy and the National Nuclear Security Administration; that means that everything here, from the supercomputer Sequoia to the top-of-the-line 3-D printers, is supposed to have a potential application in some reach of the defense sector, though there are often ancillary civilian benefits. Even in peace, this is a wartime lab; accordingly, everyone here operates under a strange tension, tasked with destroying the world—and saving it.

Mathew Scott for Newsweek

So when you are inside the one-square-mile confines of Livermore, you are at the very heart of the military-industrial complex. One of its early leaders was Edward Teller, the Manhattan Project physicist who became a disturbingly unabashed proponent of the hydrogen bomb and a model for Stanley Kubrick's nutty Dr. Strangelove. He was once called "a danger to all that's important" for his famous bloodlust; today, Teller's ghost, flitting in and out of the NorCal shade, is a reminder that war unleashed so much of America's famed 20th century ingenuity.

Wisoff, with his cheery soccer-dad demeanor, seems fine with Livermore's bifurcated identity. He explains that civil aviation benefited enormously from the demand for warplanes during two World Wars. The same, he thinks, will be true for the "tiny little star," as he calls it, that is a nuclear fusion reaction.

That energy could either be deployed to, say, obliterate Tehran or power San Francisco with cheap, non-polluting energy. "By investing in our nuclear security," Wisoff says, the federal government is "enabling us to have the conversation over whether fusion would be able to be a power source in the future." He says that funders like the NNSA have a clear-cut goal in mind: "Let's get ignition, and then the decision-makers in Washington will decide whether they want an emphasis on getting fusion energy for the world at large."

In the recent Nature article that made so much news, Livermore scientists wrote that their latest shots "show an order-of-magnitude improvement in yield performance over past deuterium-tritium implosion experiments." Successful ignition has been repeated since (the lasers "shoot" about 200 times a year) with even greater yields, but the fusion yield remains modest so far, partly because while hydrogen nuclei are fusing, energy-rich helium nuclei known as alpha particles escape. If the force of the fusion were great enough to incorporate the alpha particles, a process known as alpha-particle bootstrapping, far more tritium and deuterium nuclei would consequently be incited to get in on the subatomic orgy. So while the reaction does yield energy, there is a huge qualification to that goal: only 1 percent of the lasers' original 1.9 megajoules of energy even reaches the fuel, since most of it dissipates along the way. The victory, with its 17 kilojoule yield, is a modest one.

Bikes outside of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in Livermore, CA. Mathew Scott

And it has been a long time coming. Earlier attempts were unsuccessful for a variety of reasons, from protrusions on the surface of the plastic capsule that holds the hydrogen fuel to the angle at which the lasers strike the hohlraum before turning into x-rays. Many things can go wrong, apparently, in a billionth of a second. It helps that much of the fusion process can be modeled on Sequoia, the supercomputer down the road that has 1.6 million CPUs and is about as powerful as 100,000 desktops. The computer is helping to manage our nuclear stockpile, a sort of super-brained consultant that can conduct nuclear testing, as live tests have not been performed since 1992. In its free time, Sequoia helps out with fusion modeling.


None of this, you've probably figured out, is cheap. Construction on NIF began in 1997; it was finally ready to fire in 2009. NIF has cost the American taxpayer some $5 billion and continues to receive more than $300 million per year in funding, in part so we can master what Wisoff calls "the quintessential energy source of the world."

Mathew Scott for Newsweek

February's announcement of ignition led to good publicity for a lab that hasn't had all that much of it in recent years. In 2009, the National Ignition Campaign promised results on the fusion front by 2012. But in December of that year, Livermore officials testified in front of a parsimonious Congress that "they don't understand why the...machine is not working," according to a report in Science magazine. "And they cannot guarantee that it will ever work." Management changes followed, as they usually do after such frustrations. Physicists and engineers say that, recently, they have come to better understand how to evenly compress the hydrogen fuel and bootstrap the reaction with alpha particles.

Yet, despite their recent achievements, many here in Livermore and beyond caution against excessive enthusiasm. Rod Adams is a former fission reactor operator who now blogs at Atomic Insights. A staunch defender of fission power, he called NIF, upon its opening, "a gold-plated, expansive playing field producing NO real power," deeming the whole thing "fusion hype." Reached by phone late last week, he remained unimpressed with the advances recently made at Livermore. "It's not a path that's going to provide useful energy in my lifetime," he said, "or the lifetime of my children." At the same time, researchers across Europe and Asia are racing ahead with fusion experiments of their own, some of them using magnetic technology that could prove more effective than NIF's lasers.

Mathew Scott for Newsweek

The focus on NIF, however, obscures a point best made in teenaged jargon: a lot of really friggin' cool stuff happens here, the vast majority of it having little to do with explosions of any kind. David F. Richards, for example, a staff scientist who runs Sequoia simulations, has me sit in an amphitheater and don 3-D glasses, as if in preparation for a sci-fi feature. On the screen above us, a human heart appears, pulsating in three dimensions like an Edgar Allan Poe nightmare. Using Sequoia's nearly unrivaled modeling power, as well as cross-sections of the human heart from the Visible Human Project, Richards and partners at IBM have created a code, called Cardioid, that "accurately simulates the activation of each heart muscle cell and the cell-to-cell electric coupling," according to a Livermore publication. The result is a model of the organ that accounts for 370 million cells and can "beat" much faster than earlier models. Richards's goal is to see how a variety of commonplace drugs cause the irregular beating known as arrhythmia.

Richards is definitely a geek. So is every other person I meet at Livermore. This is unambiguously a compliment. A near-endless cavalcade of metrics published in the last decade indicates that the average American knows about as much math and science as a nematode; the men and women gathered here are a stark rejoinder to that narrative of American decline. And with their variegated national backgrounds, the researchers here— who come from China, Portugal, Russia, Germany, and many other nations—also help recall how much American science has been done by those born outside of America: European Jews, for example, were largely responsible for the Manhattan Project.

You can decide for yourself whether it is dispiriting or inspiring that the military is effectively driving the kind of balls-to-the-wall research that, according to so many recent car commercials, is integral to the American Spirit. But that is the case, as Livermore amply demonstrates.

In the additive manufacturing laboratory, for example, engineer Christopher M. Spadaccini and his fellow materials engineers are using what's known colloquially as 3-D printing to create intricate silicon-based lattices that could one day line the insides of the helmets of soldiers—or of football players. Researchers here are creating pellets that would soak up carbon-based emissions and antennae for people with speech impediments "designed to turn throat vibrations into a decipherable electric signal." Someone also made a fully functional plastic wrench, perhaps just for the hell of it.

As far as we civilians are concerned, Livermore's various biosecurity projects look to be especially promising in advancing medical care. At the micro- and nanotechnology lab of Satinderpall S. Pannu, recent innovations include a retinal implant (developed with the private company Second Sight) about the size of a watch battery. His group has also developed a microelectrode for deep brain stimulation that could treat depression by direct insertion into the still-mysterious organ. The biologist Crystal Jaing, meanwhile, is working on a microbial detection array that can screen a patient's DNA sample for the presence of strains of 8,101 microbial species (viruses, bacteria, protozoa, fungi) within 24 hours. A more narrowly targeted polymerase chain reaction reader, developed by chemical engineer Elizabeth Wheeler and colleagues, will be able to detect certain pathogenic intrusions within a patient's DNA sample in only three minutes. And the hydrogen expert Robert Glass has partnered with the nearby Delta Diablo Sanitation District and the Florida company Chemergy to convert solid waste—to put the matter very plainly, poop—into hydrogen gas that can be used as an energy source.

But all these worthy projects are dwarfed by NIF, because the audacity of fusion is irresistible. We have to wean ourselves off fossil fuel, most everyone reasonable agrees, and nuclear fission (the splitting of nuclei) has left us with the legacy of Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima, not to mention transuranic waste no state wants to house: hence the stalled Yucca Mountain repository in Nevada.

There is perhaps hubris in the belief that we can safely (and profitably) replicate the same release of energy that radiates from the core of the sun. Since antiquity, we have known that the sun can both nourish life and end it. In Greek myth, Phaethon wants proof that he is the progeny of the god Apollo; the young man will only be mollified if his supposed father allows him to drive his chariot of the sun. Apollo assents, with disastrous effects: Phaethon cannot control the chariot, which lights up the stars and proceeds to scorch the Earth: "whole cities burn," Ovid writes, "And peopled kingdoms into ashes turn." Fearing that "universal ruin must ensue," Zeus fells the boy with a thunderbolt. The men and women at Livermore are similarly audacious, trying to turn the potentially destructive force of nuclear fusion into something capable of powering your iPhone. Whether glory or ignominy awaits them, nobody yet knows.