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Primer: Project Matterhorn and Early Fusion Research May 28, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in EWP Primer.
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At this moment, the National Ignition Facility (NIF) is preparing to come online at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California (see the New York Times story).  The goal of NIF is to study small-scale nuclear fusion ignited by a precisely focused array of 192 high-power lasers.  Reflecting a situation often seen in higher profile with America’s space program, the project is vastly over-budget, and its worth has been subjected to extensive criticism.  Nuclear fusion has for decades remained  a subject of intensive study and perpetually unmet promise.  The “Array of Contemporary American Physicists” on which I am now at work for the AIP History Center will have fusion and related plasma research as one of its focuses, and includes information on some of those involved in the NIF as well as in prior generations of research.

Lyman Spitzer explains the stellarator at the Second Geneva Conference on the Peaceful Uses of Atomic Energy, 1958

Lyman Spitzer explains the “stellarator” at the Second Geneva Conference on the Peaceful Uses of Atomic Energy, 1958

The study of nuclear fusion dates to the 1930s, when an emerging theoretical understanding of subatomic forces and particles suggested a way of accounting for the energy produced by stars and the synthesis of elements within them, as worked out by German émigré physicist Hans Bethe.  During World War II, it was understood that artificial fusion could be created by using a fission bomb to ignite nuclear fuel—the idea behind the “super” or “hydrogen” bomb.  This possibility was pursued during the war by Hungarian émigré physicist Edward Teller, and, following debate on whether (more…)