Inertial confinement fusion

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Inertial confinement fusion (ICF) is a process where nuclear fusion reactions are initiated by heating and compressing a fuel target, typically in the form of a pellet that most often contains a mixture of deuterium and tritium.

To compress and heat the fuel, energy is delivered to the outer layer of the target using high-energy beams of laser light, electrons or ions, although for a variety of reasons, almost all ICF devices to date have used lasers. The heated outer layer explodes outward, producing a reaction force against the remainder of the target, accelerating it inwards, and sending shock waves into the center. A sufficiently powerful set of shock waves can compress and heat the fuel at the center so much that fusion reactions occur. The energy released by these reactions will then heat the surrounding fuel, which may also begin to undergo fusion. The aim of ICF is to produce a condition known as "ignition", where this heating process causes a chain reaction that burns a significant portion of the fuel. Typical fuel pellets are about the size of a pinhead and contain around 10 milligrams of fuel: in practice, only a small proportion of this fuel will undergo fusion, but if all this fuel were consumed it would release the energy equivalent to burning a barrel of oil.

ICF is one of two major branches of fusion energy research, the other being magnetic confinement fusion. To date most of the work in ICF has been carried out in France and the United States, and generally has seen less development effort than magnetic approaches. Two large projects are currently underway, the Laser M├ęgajoule in France and the National Ignition Facility in the United States. When it was first proposed, ICF appeared to be a practical approach to fusion power production, but experiments during the 1970s and '80s demonstrated that the efficiency of these devices was much lower than expected. For much of the 1980s and '90s ICF experiments focused primarily on nuclear weapons research. More recent advances suggest that major gains in performance are possible, once again making ICF attractive for commercial power generation. A number of new experiments are underway or being planned to test this new "fast ignition" approach.


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