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WSU research leader sees opportunities in nuclear fusion

A large room with laser equipment all oriented toward a point on the back wall
The target chamber of LLNL's National Ignition Facility, where 192 laser beams delivered more than 2 million joules of ultraviolet energy to a tiny fuel pellet to create fusion ignition in December 2022. Image courtesy of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

After 192 lasers blasted onto a bb-sized pellet of hydrogen to achieve nuclear fusion, Chris Keane celebrated along with thousands of researchers who all had a hand in this landmark scientific achievement.

He was also soon talking with former colleagues to explore ways Washington State University and its partners can help develop this advance into a viable energy source.

Keane, now WSU’s systemwide vice president for research and vice chancellor for research at WSU Pullman, previously spent decades working on the quest for nuclear fusion in a variety of capacities, including helping oversee the creation of the National Ignition Facility at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, the world’s largest laser system. Last month, officials announced that for the first time, researchers at the facility created a fusion reaction that produced more energy than the lasers used to make it.

Closeup of Christopher Keane.
Christopher Keane

“It’s tremendously gratifying—for me and the thousands of scientists and engineers who have worked on capturing the power of fusion and harnessing it for both national security and energy uses,” said Keane. “Now that the scientific proof of principle has been done, there’s interest in trying to develop the technology and make it into an actual energy source. But there’s a lot of work to do.”

And Keane thinks that WSU researchers as well as Pacific Northwest businesses could be well positioned to do some of that work. The laser blast that created the fusion was fast, lasting about the time it takes light to travel a foot, and carried 2.05 megajoules of energy. When it hit the capsule filled with hydrogen isotopes, called deuterium and tritium, they fused—mimicking the type of power made by the sun—and emitted 3.15 megajoules of energy, a 1.5 energy gain.

It did all this without creating the same harmful byproducts of other power sources like the greenhouse gases fossil fuel power generates or radioactive materials created by nuclear power plants that use fission, splitting atoms instead of merging them.

While the fusion advance is impressive, to be a viable power-generating technology that laser blast would have to be repeated often and quickly, perhaps as frequently as 10 times per second, Keane said. The lasers would also have to be more efficient. The National Ignition Facility’s football-field-sized lasers use 1980s technology and fire a few times per day. They are meant for experiments in support of the nation’s program to maintain a safe, secure, and reliable nuclear stockpile without nuclear testing, not energy generation.

The lasers’ “targets”—those bb-sized pellets of hydrogen isotopes—would also need to be refined and manufactured at a mass scale. And whole systems would need to be designed and built to capture the energy from the fusion reaction to turn it into useful energy to run a power plant.

“WSU has some outstanding faculty in the behavior of materials in extreme nuclear environments,” Keane said. “That’s one way we could be involved, but there are some other scientific opportunities as well. I think there will be a big push on the technology side.”

Keane noted that several startups in the Pacific Northwest have already been exploring fusion energy generation using a variety of methods, and that billions of dollars have been invested in commercializing fusion in the U.S. and abroad. Much of this investment has been in magnetic fusion, which uses a donut-shaped device called a tokamak to attempt to create fusion in a steady continuous flow.

This work should continue as it shows promise, Keane said, but now with the breakthrough from the National Ignition facility in a method called inertial fusion, there may be new opportunities.

Up to this point, the federal government has largely funded research into inertial fusion, primarily for national security reasons.

With the latest advance, however, many including Keane expect new interest in researching, and funding, ways to turn inertial fusion into a power source.

As a first step towards furthering WSU involvement in inertial fusion, Keane has invited people involved in the recent breakthrough to come to the university.

“I’ve recently spoken with some colleagues in the field from my time at the U.S. Department of Energy and Lawrence Livermore National Lab, they would be very happy to come out and talk about this achievement and opportunities with our faculty and staff,” said Keane. “Stay tuned.”

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