What is LIFE: Understanding LIFE

Fusion energy is a safe and sustainable source of power.

What is fusion?

Fusion, the process that powers the sun and the stars, is the reaction in which two atoms of hydrogen combine together to form an atom of helium. In the process some of the mass of the hydrogen is converted into energy. The easiest fusion reaction to make happen is combining the hydrogen isotopes deuterium and tritium to make helium and a neutron. Deuterium is plentifully available in ordinary water. Tritium can be produced by combining the fusion neutron with the abundant light metal lithium. Thus fusion has the potential to be an inexhaustible source of energy.

More on fusion.

How can we create fusion?

Electrical socket

To make fusion happen, the atoms of hydrogen must be heated to very high temperatures (100 million degrees) so they are ionized (forming a plasma) and have sufficient energy to fuse, and then be held together, or confined, long enough for fusion to occur. The sun and stars do this by gravity. Current approaches on earth are magnetic confinement, where a strong magnetic field holds the ionized atoms together while they are heated by microwaves or other energy sources, and inertial confinement, where a tiny pellet of frozen hydrogen is compressed and heated by an intense energy beam, such as a laser, so quickly that fusion occurs before the atoms can fly apart. Laser Inertial Fusion Energy, or LIFE, power plants, as the name suggests, will use the inertial confinement approach.

How does laser fusion power generation work?

A laser fusion power plant operates conceptually like a car engine: fuel is injected (in the form of a small capsule of hydrogen isotopes); a piston is then used to compress and heat the fuel to the point of ignition (with the piston being a large laser); and finally, the spent fuel is exhausted, and the cycle repeats. Repetition rates of up to 15 times a second (similar to an idling car engine) are sufficient to produce a gigawatt of electrical power from an inertial fusion energy plant.

More on laser fusion power plants.

Why fusion?

Fusion energy offers the promise of abundant, truly sustainable energy. One out of every 6500 atoms of hydrogen in ordinary water is deuterium, giving a cup of water the energy content of close to 19 gallons of gasoline. In addition, fusion would be environmentally friendly, producing no combustion products or greenhouse gases. While fusion is a process that occurs in the nucleus of an atom, the products of the fusion reaction (helium and a neutron) are not radioactive, and with proper design a fusion power plant would be passively safe, and would produce no long-lived radioactive waste. Fusion has high energy efficiency and so makes efficient use of land resources compared with wind and solar energy. Design studies show that electricity from fusion can be cost competitive with other energy sources.

Water glass

Despite these compelling advantages, the promise of fusion energy remains unfulfilled. Chief among the reasons for this is the simple fact that controlled fusion gain—that is, fusion where more energy results from the reaction that was put into the reaction—has not yet been demonstrated in the laboratory. Without demonstration of scientific feasibility, it is virtually impossible to attract the funding needed to commence serious technology development.

"I do believe we will be able to solve the energy problem. Energy may well be the problem of the age. And what is the solution? Bringing the Sun to Earth."

—Dr. Edward Moses, director of the National Ignition Facility at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory

What is the LIFE approach?

Fusion energy is reaching a turning point, as the National Ignition Facility (NIF) at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory is conducting experiments designed to demonstrate ignition, or fusion with energy gain. Ignition will resolve the question of whether fusion energy is possible. This clears the way for the engineering and technology work needed to establish commercial feasibility. The LIFE effort takes the next step, providing a blueprint on progressing from scientific feasibility to commercial fusion energy in a time frame that is relevant to satisfying the world's ever increasing need for abundant, sustainable energy.

The LIFE approach builds upon the technology advances achieved in building and conducting ignition experiments on NIF. Adopting a modular design and construction, building on proven physics and laser technology, and pursuing concurrent integration of required technologies, a LIFE power plant will offer safe, cost-effective, and reliable baseload power.

More on the LIFE power plant design.

The LIFE solution uses:

  • Proven physics: demonstrated on the National Ignition Facility
  • Available materials: enabling construction of the first plant in the near term
  • Market-based technology: using the U.S. solid state (semiconductor) manufacturing base
LIFE plant rendering

Why now?

  • NIF ignition will provide the scientific basis for a fusion power plant (for the first time in 50 years)
  • Required delivery of safe, carbon-free base load power from the 2020s requires an immediate start on a first-of-its kind plant
  • Recent progress in solid-state laser technology has dramatically lowered the cost and size to acceptable levels, removing long-standing obstacles
  • Using lessons learned from NIF, the concept of line replaceable units has enabled a fundamentally new approach to power plant design, ensuring high plant availability
  • Taken together, a plant with high availability and reliability is now achievable, consistent with the highest level utility requirements for commercial operation

More on delivering LIFE soon enough to make a difference.

Advantages of Fusion

  • Abundant fuel supply
  • No risk of runaway reaction
  • No greenhouse gas emissions
  • No high-level nuclear waste