A plasma physicist explains what’s next after this week’s nuclear fusion breakthrough

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Tammy Ma was about to board a plane at San Francisco International Airport when she received the call of her life. She is a plasma physicist at the National Ignition Facility (NIF), the world’s largest and most energetic laser. An experiment at the facility had just achieved a breakthrough in nuclear fusion that scientists have been trying to achieve for decades.

“I burst into tears and I was jumping up and down in the holding area,” Ma told reporters at a technical briefing on the performance in Washington, DC, this week.

NIF shot 192 laser beams at a small target filled with fuel, achieving “fusion ignition” in a controlled environment for the first time on Earth

Very early that morning — 1:03 a.m. on Dec. 5 — NIF 192 fired laser beams at a small target filled with fuel, achieving “fusion ignition” in a controlled environment for the first time on Earth. That means they could have generated more energy through nuclear fusion than the laser energy used to start the reaction. By producing fusion reactions in the lab, Ma and her colleagues are essentially mimicking the way stars generate energy. And one day — albeit probably decades from now — that process could provide our world with clean, theoretically unlimited energy.

The edge has an explanation of nuclear fusion and the breakthrough with ignition that happened this week. We also interviewed Ma, who leads the Inertial Fusion Energy Institutional Initiative at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. Watch our talk to learn more about her work and what breakthroughs are coming after the ignition.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How would you describe your day job at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory?

Let’s be honest. We now have this pool of data from the last decade that we’re building on, so it’s not like we’re pulling new ideas out of thin air. But you know, how can we improve on the last set of experiments? What design changes do we want to make?

We are working with the laser scientists to try to define the best laser pulse to use. We need to work with materials scientists to develop the materials for the purposes we need. We work with experimenters who have to set up all our diagnostic tools to catch the burst of neutrons exactly when it comes out. We have some of the fastest x-ray cameras in the world, so we can record what’s happening in real time. So in total, it’s a huge team that brings all of this together.

A portrait of Tammy Ma

Tammy Ma, a physicist and leader of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory’s Inertial Fusion Energy Institutional Initiative.
Image: Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory

However, my specific role right now is to try to move to the next step of fusion power. We’ve been trying to prepare, you know, after we get the inflammation, how can we take advantage of this great discovery? And now we are here.

What was it like getting the news that your lab caught fire?

It was great because the NIF runs 24/7 – we do experiments every day. And it’s just built on decades of work, right? And I’m very lucky to be here right now. But there have been giants before us. And I’m still not sure it’s fully sunk yet that we’ve achieved this. So it’s exciting.

And when are you going to try to achieve this again?

We will continuously try not only to repeat the recording, but also to implement improvements in the future. We continuously try to improve the quality of the targets – that makes a huge difference. We have plans to further increase laser energy in the future. Every few weeks we do new experiments.

What challenges must be overcome next?

We also need to build many of the underlying technologies that will support a fusion power plant in the future. But that means cheaper targets that we generate in high volume and that are very robust and of good quality. Bringing in lasers that can operate at a high repetition rate. The NIF only fires once every four to eight hours or so. But the idea is that a fusion power plant should fire 10 times per second or more. So you can imagine that we have to find a way to speed things up. It’s a big challenge. And so not only do we have to work with a huge team in the lab, but we also work with universities and academia. The private sector is now also taking an interest. And so we need all that expertise to come together and make it happen.

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