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The most important building in the world

Malcolm Potts, professor of population and family planning | May 27, 2012

What I call “The Most Important Building in the World” is large and expensive and it is on the Lawrence Livermore campus off Highway 580 and 40 miles from Cal.

Three huge challenges will dominate the rest of the 21st century:

  • Can we avoid destroying ourselves with weapons of mass destruction?
  • Can we slow rapid population growth in a human rights framework?
  • Can we generate power without pouring CO2 into the atmosphere?

The Most Important Building in the World is the National Ignition Facility (NIF) at the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory, because it promises to make nuclear fusion a reality. It is much nearer this supreme goal then I realized until I had the privilege of joining a party of colleagues who were shown around the facility by Ed Moses, the director of NIF.

The goal is to create the pressures and temperatures found in the middle of the sun, sufficient to fuse two isotopes of hydrogen (deuterium and tritium) into helium with the release of prodigious energy. But without the radio-activity and other dangers associated with the current nuclear fission power plants.

Ernest Lawrence was recruited from Yale to join the Berkeley faculty in 1928 as an associate professor. In 1930 he became the youngest ladder rank professor on the Berkeley faculty and nine years later he received the Nobel Prize for his invention of the cyclotron. Lawrence played an important role in the Manhattan project and after the War he was involved in some of the early attempts to limit the proliferation of nuclear weapons. In 1952 Lawrence and Edward Teller helped found the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. Much of its early work was in the development of compact nuclear weapons and today it ‘tests’ nuclear weapons in a super-computer, instead of underground in Nevada.

The slogan of the NIF  is “Bring star power to Earth?” The most Important Building in the World houses 192 lasers, each 50 times more powerful than their rivals anywhere else on Earth. The building is 10 stories high (we took the elevator to the laser level) and the size of three football from fields. The photons from these lasers are focused onto a tiny target about the size of a peanut.

The NIF marries cutting-edge science with extraordinary accurate and ingenious engineering solutions. All the work has to be done to engineering tolerances equivalent to one third the diameter of a human hair and on time scales of billionths of a second. The vacuum chamber in which the lasers are focused is 10 meters in diameter. Ed Moses looks to the complex engineering in the room with the cleanliness of an operating theater and says wistfully, “You’re not supposed to fall in love with an inanimate object!”  When you see the NIF you understand this perspective.

The scientists and engineers are more bullish than I expected. Could they have fusion in a year or two? And if they succeed can the process be brought to scale?

The first lasers invented in the 1950s and 1060s filled a lab room, but now a laser fits into the end of my ball point pen. I’m old enough to remember the newsreel images of the first hydrogen bomb. It was vast device, the size of an airplane hangar on the remote Bikini Atoll in the Pacific. Within a short time multiple hydrogen bombs were being fitted on top of one intercontinental ballistic missile. NIF has diagrams of lasers which could be used in a commercial fusion facility that would be an order of magnitude smaller than those in the Most Important Building in the World. But in this case, instead of threatening humankind with destruction, they hold the possibility changing the world in a magnificent way and without any downside risks. The water found in a water cooler at the end of the corridor in most Cal buildings would provide enough electric power to supply San Francisco for many months..

UC Berkeley, and especially our students, are suffering from the grid-lock policies of the California legislature and the Stone Age tribal politics of the Tea Party. It is uplifting to know that 40 miles from the campus The Most Important Building in the World is doing experiments which could begin to ‘bring star power to Earth’ in the life time of even the older faculty such as myself. There are big things that are worth tax payers’ money. There are skills and insights only a university can provide that do have the power to change the world.

I am a physician and a biologist and from a blog on Health and Medicine I salute my colleagues in physics and engineering and I hope more young students will enter these fields.

Comments to “The most important building in the world

  1. Great acknowledgement of the research goals of the Lawrence Livermore Labs research into fusion, and its practical application to our futures. Thanks!

    As a tea partyist, I must add, that such research (while not constitutionally mandated, a’hmm) IS EXACTLY the grand national interest the federal government aught be investing in. AND, grander goals than these could be achieved if it were not providing a cell phone for every pocket nor a subsidized lifestyle for the masses.

    The role of the states to create a lifestyle for its population has been upended, and that if the Fed magnified out of any sane proportion.

  2. Great post thanks for sharing. Dr. Potts has been an inspiration and hero for me after only having him as a guest lecturer for a class. I hope to see his work and knowledge brought to the public more often.

  3. The National Ignition Facility’s search for a scientifically feasible way of producing energy through nuclear fusion is mankind’s best hope for surviving the ongoing tumultuous developments of the 21st century which now threaten humanity’s long term existence on planet Earth. The world’s main stream news media tends to ignore nuclear fusion energy because of the lengthy development time to bring it into the realm of both scientific and commercial feasibility (the most important aspect!). For decades, the perspective has been “Fusion energy is the technology of the future and always will be!” This aphorism will soon be swept away as recent theoretical breakthroughs in attaining sustainable contained fusion energy reactions allows the safe generation of cheap, abundant electric power. The implications of this are enormous:

    1) Much cheaper electric energy prices will provide an economic boost to the global economy, reversing the economic drag of rising prices for fossil fuels. This will lift many poor people out of poverty.
    2) There will be a radical reduction in the consumption of fossil fuels, reducing global warming.
    3) Cheap electric energy will allow the construction of major desalinization plants worldwide which will desalinate water far more cheaply drawing salt water from the world’s oceans and pumping it to wherever it is needed to meet the needs of farmers for growing crops and watering livestock, to consumers wherever they may live and meet the needs of industries. Absent this, water will become increasingly scarce and expensive threatening the lives of many poor people in developing countries with high population growth rates.
    4) The rapid decline in demand for fossil fuels will greatly lower jet fuel prices for aircraft and bunker fuel prices for bulk and container shipping. This will greatly lower the cost of international travel and the transport of raw materials and finished products.

    In the longer term it will likely make space travel much more economical, but there remains much more research to be done on fusion energy propulsion systems.

    As to concerns about overpopulation in developing countries by Prof. Potts, he is correct that it is a problem – but more so for the people who live in those countries which are very geographically limited in scope. The real long term population problem in the world is that of underpopulation. This is due to women in developed countries having too few children to replace themself and their spouse. Recently, it was announced that the last Japanese citizen will die in a thousand years time because of the failure of the Japanese to reproduce themselves. In the next few thousand years, humanity could be extinct if we continue to have fewer and fewer children. I believe that once low cost fusion energy is developed, human beings will have new confidence in a brighter future for the world and we can look at stabilizing the world population at a reasonable level – say 3 to 5 billion people. A continually declining population is economically unstable and it will be necessary for all nations to adopt policies to promote a stable population level. Promoting population stability will be an important part of straightening out the current world economic mess that we are all facing on Planet Earth.

  4. What an amazing article. Dr. Potts has been an inspiration and hero for me after only having him as a guest lecturer for a class. I hope to see his work and knowledge brought to the public more often.

  5. Thank you for an enjoyable article, the implications for successful commercialization of nuclear fusion for power generation are enormous. Except for your politically correct, typical state-sponsored people’s republic of bezerkly left wing political bias – “UC Berkeley, and especially our students, are suffering from the grid-lock policies of the California legislature and the Stone Age tribal politics of the Tea Party.” I agree with your fusion comments.

    Since you chose to inject politics into a discussion on nuclear fusion technology, let me say the Tea Party movement is all about fiscal sustainability and responsible stewardship of the TAXPAYER’S money. You, professor, work for the Taxpayers. They don’t work for you! California is in a increasingly decaying financial situation and is on the road to an economic abyss, thanks to decades of liberal over-spending, nanny state over-reach and over-regulation, and hostility to industry.

    I saw the disaster coming years ago and left California to live and work in the pro-business, low-tax state of Texas, and have absolutely no regrets. Looking at the number of California license plates I’ve been seeing in Texas, apparently many other talented private-sector workers are also leaving the Golden State. Knowing the mentality in Berkeley, I invite all to please make all the arrogant red-neck jokes you want…. but it won’t help your cause one bit. Your ship is sinking. LLNL will flourish, but Bezerkly won’t.

    • California is twice the state Texas will ever be. And I’m a business owner. Your response is just another reason why the Tea Party in this country has such pathetic rep. Also, perhaps you should take a class in logic. Simply seeing California license plates in the state of Texas does not translate to the conclusion that private-sector workers are leaving the Golden State. I see a number of Texas license plates in California. By your logic, it would mean people are leaving Texas to get away from such a red-neck backwater. But I’m sure you’d have a logical response to this.

  6. It will be good when Nuclear Fusion becomes a reality, then all the people who say the Nuclear Fusion won’t happen will have egg on their faces. The need for clean and unlimited energy source should solve a lot of problems such as global warming, not depending on oil or coal and having an unlimited source of power that will last for millions of years. The concept of the NIF for creating Nuclear Fusion is the same way a hydrogen bomb works, it produces a lot of heat very quickly uniformly around the fuel. But instead of using a nuclear trigger for the hydrogen bomb, it uses a laser trigger with a small amount of fuel for the reactor. The only trick is how the produce the same effect with the laser and the small amount of fuel. I do not see that it will take long to reach the break-even point at all.

  7. Nuclear Fusion will provide a clean source of energy that will last for millions of years. The NIF is approach to Nuclear Fusion is the same way that hydrogen bombs work, it provide a large amount of heat very quickly around the fuel to compress it to produce more energy put in. The only different is that the hydrogen bomb uses a Nuclear Trigger to provide the large amount of heat very quickly around the fuel to compress it and NIF uses lasers to do the same. It should be a matter of time to produce the same effects.

  8. NIF can slow population growth by bringing cheap energy and therefore economic prosperity to the countries that have high population growth. Rich countries have zero or negative population growth (except through immigration). Countries that have very few poor people are in fact facing a NEGATIVE population growth crisis. Countries like Japan are trying to increase their own populations, the more money (and maybe education too) people have .. the more likely they are to not have kids.

  9. I follow on NIF since 2010, and even if I think now that they will not achieve ignition, nevertheless their aim was so great that the hardest effort was due. Human knowledge goes ahead all the way. A country like mine that does not struggle to obtain cheap and low-impact energy has no future. I am Italian!

  10. Hi. A few observations…

    1. You list as the number one issue for the 21st Century: “Can we avoid destroying ourselves with weapons of mass destruction?” Regarding the NIF, did Ed Moses forget to tell you that NIF is a U.S. Dept. of Energy National Nuclear Security Administration Nuclear Weapons Activity? That is its line item title in the budget. Furthermore, according to the Lawrence Livermore National Lab Institutional Plan, NIF’s number one mission is to push the envolope on nuclear weapons physics. And, NIF’s number 2 mission? According to the LLNL Institutional Plan – To provide a test facility for nuclear weapons effects tests (i.e., determining the impact of a nuclear warfighting environment on U.S. assets).

    2. Did Ed Moses mention that plutonium and other fissile materials are slated to be used in experiments in NIF along with the deuterium-tritium targets? Or that 80% of NIF experiments are to be classified/nuclear weapons experiments, according to the DOE NNSA budget request?

    3. Did Ed mention that NIF has so far consumed $7 billion of our tax dollars that could have been used elsewhere if you include NIF construction and construction-related R&D in the total? Or that NIF missed its promised achievement of ignition in 2003, then 2010? Now ignition is promised in Fiscal Year 2012, but scientists inside and outside the progam agree it won’t happen. Or, that NIF will consume around $400 million per year each year it operates?

    And so it goes…

    • Your observations are severely lacking.

      If the NIF achieves ignition and fusion power becomes an option, global competition for energy resources drops sharply because there is now an abundant power source. World politics will be revolutionized and the need for nuclear weapons diminished. I expect the number ONE mission for the NIF would be to Fast Track Fusion and nuclear stockpile testing would fall away.

      The NIF is welcome to a measly $7 billion over a couple of decades for the power to change the world. We spent more than $750 billion on Iraq. We spend more on NASA’s annual budget, for what? NASA does not have a space shuttle anymore and NASA does not provide weather satellites, NOAA does. Do I hear you railing against NASA? No, because you would rather torpedo our last, best Hope. I know Tri-Valley is funded to propagate this drivel, but please think of humanity’s future before your own pay-check.

      • Hurray, Sandra! Well put response to a very short-sighted and narrow thinking and comment. Indeed $7 billion is really nothing compared to what the U.S. has spent on Iraq just to justify G.W. Bush’s ego.

        As to fusion as an energy source, it will happen. It’s just a matter of time. There were many nay-sayers about Atomic Program (If the U.S. didn’t do it, former Soviet Union or Germany would have because knowledge was already there.) and about Apollo Program. Let’s call it that inevitable march or progress of humanity and science.

        Thank God, we left behind Dark Ages and religions’ Control over the state.

    • Since you want a “promise” for a scientific breakthrough, you obviously haven’t a clue of how any of this works…

      • Your points about the nuclear weapons connection are meaningless. Understanding inertial fusion means studying the same processes that make a nuke go boom. Zapping plutonium and other materials still drive the fusion science forward because it is teaching us about our hardware, driving sensor development, and helping us understand the kinds of extreme environments that we need to master to optimize ignition.

        Yes, the so called “primary” reason for funding NIF was for stockpile management. But that also eliminated the need for nuclear weapons testing, which is a great benefit in reducing global proliferation.

        And NIF was always intended for the bigger purpose of developing fusion. By combining the two missions appropriators were able to take fusion research off of the science budget and put it on the DOD budget where it faces fewer constraints.

        So the reality is that two separate and complimentary projects were combined to save resources, and even the purely military activities end up supporting humanitarian goals while simultaneously driving fusion research goals. NIF is a second or third best solution for the military, while being a first best solution for fusion research and it was the fusion researchers that were the big winner when NIF was approved.

  11. How is the NIF supposed to control rapid population growth? Are you suggesting using the 192 lasers for that? They’re mighty powerful but I don’t think eradicating people with lasers is much in line with human rights.

  12. Prof. Alison Gopnik gives us the greatest reason for optimism today:

    “The greatest human evolutionary advantage is our innate ability to imagine better alternatives to the current world – possible universes that could exist in the future – and to figure out how to make them real. It’s the ability we see in its earliest form in the fantastic pretend play of even the youngest children.”

    NIF and global communications can enable the young to make the right things happen to produce the best possible future for themselves.

    That is why NIF is “The most important building in the world.”

  13. Let’s hope they can figure out a solution to the fuel mixing problem. Last I heard they were at a loss on how to solve that. Does the solution lie in 3D patterned layering of the pellet’s ablation surface layers? Or the hohlraum shape? I dunno, but it seems that they have tried everything but still can’t stop the fuel shooting into the center and mixing.

    That’s why my greatest hopes are with the Magnetized Liner Inertial Fusion concept being built at Sandia National Labs.

  14. Prof. Potts, you are absolutely correct to characterize the National Ignition Facility as “The Most Important Building in the World” today.

    Unlimited fusion energy to supply the needs of the world’s growing growth, and end the era of out of control poverty and never-ending wars.

    Politicians have the power to make decisions that can destroy the human race today if we fail to implement a clean energy source.

    Fast track success at NIF, with the same urgency as the Manhattan Project, is the University of California’s highest priority today.

    UC scientists contributed greatly to winning WWII, and today they have the opportunity to perpetuate an acceptable quality of life for all future generations.

    Memorial Day once again reminds us that far too many have risked and lost their lives for us to fail in this effort to honor and perpetuate their legacy.

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