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This timeline of nuclear fusion is an incomplete chronological summary of significant events in the study and use of nuclear fusion.
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A tokamak is a device which uses a powerful magnetic field to confine plasma in the shape of a torus. The tokamak is one of several types of magnetic confinement devices being developed to produce controlled thermonuclear fusion power. As of 2016, it was the leading candidate for a practical fusion reactor. The word "tokamak" is derived from a Russian acronym meaning "toroidal chamber with magnetic coils".
Inertial confinement fusion (ICF) is a fusion energy process that initiates nuclear fusion reactions by compressing and heating targets filled with fuel. The targets are small pellets, typically containing deuterium (2H) and tritium (3H).
Fusion power is a proposed form of power generation that would generate electricity by using heat from nuclear fusion reactions. In a fusion process, two lighter atomic nuclei combine to form a heavier nucleus, while releasing energy. Devices designed to harness this energy are known as fusion reactors. Research into fusion reactors began in the 1940s, but as of 2023, no device has reached net power.
ITER is an international nuclear fusion research and engineering megaproject aimed at creating energy through a fusion process similar to that of the Sun. Upon completion of construction of the main reactor and first plasma, planned for late 2025, it will be the world's largest magnetic confinement plasma physics experiment and the largest experimental tokamak nuclear fusion reactor. It is being built next to the Cadarache facility in southern France. ITER will be the largest of more than 100 fusion reactors built since the 1950s, with ten times the plasma volume of any other tokamak operating today.
The National Ignition Facility (NIF) is a laser-based inertial confinement fusion (ICF) research device, located at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in Livermore, California, United States. NIF's mission is to achieve fusion ignition with high energy gain. It achieved the first instance of scientific breakeven controlled fusion in an experiment on December 5, 2022, with an energy gain factor of 1.5. It supports nuclear weapon maintenance and design by studying the behavior of matter under the conditions found within nuclear explosions.
A fusion energy gain factor, usually expressed with the symbol Q, is the ratio of fusion power produced in a nuclear fusion reactor to the power required to maintain the plasma in steady state. The condition of Q = 1, when the power being released by the fusion reactions is equal to the required heating power, is referred to as breakeven, or in some sources, scientific breakeven.
Nova was a high-power laser built at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) in California, United States, in 1984 which conducted advanced inertial confinement fusion (ICF) experiments until its dismantling in 1999. Nova was the first ICF experiment built with the intention of reaching "ignition", a chain reaction of nuclear fusion that releases a large amount of energy. Although Nova failed in this goal, the data it generated clearly defined the problem as being mostly a result of Rayleigh–Taylor instability, leading to the design of the National Ignition Facility, Nova's successor. Nova also generated considerable amounts of data on high-density matter physics, regardless of the lack of ignition, which is useful both in fusion power and nuclear weapons research.
ZETA, short for Zero Energy Thermonuclear Assembly, was a major experiment in the early history of fusion power research. Based on the pinch plasma confinement technique, and built at the Atomic Energy Research Establishment in the United Kingdom, ZETA was larger and more powerful than any fusion machine in the world at that time. Its goal was to produce large numbers of fusion reactions, although it was not large enough to produce net energy.
Inertial Fusion Energy is a proposed approach to building a nuclear fusion power plant based on performing inertial confinement fusion at industrial scale. This approach to fusion power is still in a research phase. ICF first developed shortly after the development of the laser in 1960, but was a classified US research program during its earliest years. In 1972, John Nuckolls wrote a paper predicting that compressing a target could create conditions where fusion reactions are chained together, a process known as fusion ignition or a burning plasma. On August 8, 2021, the NIF at Livermore National Laboratory became the first ICF facility in the world to demonstrate this. This breakthrough drove the US Department of Energy to create an Inertial Fusion Energy program in 2022 with a budget of 3 million dollars in its first year.
John David Lawson FRS was a British engineer and physicist.
Derek Charles Robinson FRS was a physicist who worked in the UK fusion power program for most of his professional career. Studying turbulence in the UK's ZETA reactor, he helped develop the reversed field pinch concept, an area of study to this day. He is best known for his role in taking a critical measurement on the T-3 device in the USSR in 1969 that established the tokamak as the primary magnetic fusion energy device to this day. He was also instrumental in the development of the spherical tokamak design though the construction of the START device, and its follow-on, MAST. Robinson was in charge of portions of the UK Atomic Energy Authority's fusion program from 1979 until he took over the entire program in 1996 before his death in 2002.
Fusion ignition is the point at which a nuclear fusion reaction becomes self-sustaining. This occurs when the energy being given off by the reaction heats the fuel mass more rapidly than it cools. In other words, fusion ignition is the point at which the increasing self-heating of the nuclear fusion removes the need for external heating. This is quantified by the Lawson criterion. Ignition can also be defined by the fusion energy gain factor.
LIFE, short for Laser Inertial Fusion Energy, was a fusion energy effort run at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory between 2008 and 2013. LIFE aimed to develop the technologies necessary to convert the laser-driven inertial confinement fusion concept being developed in the National Ignition Facility (NIF) into a practical commercial power plant, a concept known generally as inertial fusion energy (IFE). LIFE used the same basic concepts as NIF, but aimed to lower costs using mass-produced fuel elements, simplified maintenance, and diode lasers with higher electrical efficiency.
John D. Lindl is an American physicist who specializes in inertial confinement fusion (ICF). He is currently the chief scientist of the National Ignition Facility at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.
Heavy ion fusion is a fusion energy concept that uses a stream of high-energy ions from a particle accelerator to rapidly heat and compress a small pellet of fusion fuel. It is a subclass of the larger inertial confinement fusion (ICF) approach, replacing the more typical laser systems with an accelerator.
The history of nuclear fusion began early in the 20th century as an inquiry into how stars powered themselves and expanded to incorporate a broad inquiry into the nature of matter and energy, as potential applications expanded to include warfare, energy production and rocket propulsion.
In plasma physics, a burning plasma is one in which most of the heating comes from fusion reactions involving thermal plasma ions. The Sun and similar stars are a burning plasma, and in 2020 the National Ignition Facility achieved burning plasma. A closely related concept is that of an ignited plasma, in which all of the heating comes from fusion reactions.
Andrea "Annie" Kritcher is an American nuclear engineer and physicist who works at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. She was responsible for the development of Hybrid-E, a capsule that enables inertial confinement fusion. She was elected Fellow of the American Physical Society in 2022.