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October 2013







Fusion: Scientists Move Closer to Ignition

Scientists and engineers have long wanted to develop technology enabling them to utilize fusion reactions as a source of controlled power. Why? Fusion has the potential to provide very large amounts of energy. The challenge has been that attempts to harness fusion in a controlled reaction have required the input of more energy than was released during the fusion. Recent reports indicate that work at the National Ignition Facility (NIF) located at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) is moving researchers forward in their quest for a self-sustaining, controlled fusion reaction.


Researchers at NIF focus 192 laser beams, all at the same time, on a target container called a hohlraum (a German word meaning “hollow room”) about the size of a pencil eraser. The hohlraum holds a small super-cooled capsule of two hydrogen isotopes — deuterium and tritium. When the lasers are fired — in nanosecond (billionth-of-a-second) pulses – they deliver an enormous amount of energy and power. This heats and compresses the hydrogen isotopes so much that fusion takes place

Recently, the NIF completed a test which suggests that there is one significant challenge yet to overcome. That challenge? The capsule containing the deuterium and tritium breaks apart prematurely. As a result the research team is working to design an improved capsule for the hydrogen isotopes.

The researchers are encouraged by the results so far, but have a significant challenge to overcome before they achieve ignition.


Fusion – a nuclear reaction in which two atoms fuse and form a new kind of atom in which the two original atoms are combined.

Ignition – a point at which the fusion reaction produces more energy than is needed to initiate it


Explore these resources for more information about the National Ignition Facility.

What is NIF? 

Recent news releases from NIF

Access a gallery with interesting videos from NIF

The seven wonders of NIF

Inertial Confinement Fusion: How to Make a Star

More related images

Other places to read about the NIF milestone

Video of Countdown to a Laser Shot

Video: NIF as Featured on BBC

Ion Engine Sets Record for Test Duration

An advanced engine design from NASA completed 48,000 hours of operation – that’s five and one-half years — making it the longest test duration for any space propulsion system demonstration. The test was voluntarily ended even though the thruster was still operational because the test had exceeded requirements for anticipated space missions.

Photo: NASA

Photo: NASA

This type of propulsion system would reduce the amount of fuel that would be required for space missions, allowing increased science payload without huge increases in the overall size of the vehicle.


Read more about the engine test from NASA

About the xenon ion engine

Article about how another ion engine may enable long trips in space with less time

Article about potential for “quick trips” to Mars using fusion engines

Increasing Oil Content of Plant Leaves

Scientists at Brookhaven National Laboratory have identified the genes required to enhance oil production and accumulation in plant leaves. By managing the expression of these genes, researchers were able to increase oil content in leaves. Knowledge and application of this technique will make it possible to increase the energy content of plant-based foods and renewable biofuel.

Photo: Brookhaven National Laboratory Overexpressing the gene for PDAT, an enzyme involved in oil production, caused plant leaves to accumulate large amounts of oil in large globules (left). When scientists also added a gene for olesin, a protein known to encapsulate oil droplets, clusters of smaller, more stable droplets formed (right).

Photo: Brookhaven National Laboratory
Overexpressing the gene for PDAT, an enzyme
involved in oil production, caused plant leaves to
accumulate large amounts of oil in large
globules (left). When scientists also added a
gene for olesin, a protein known to encapsulate
oil droplets, clusters of smaller, more stable
droplets formed (right).

Studies were done using laboratory plants. Researchers hope the strategy can be transferred to crop plants which are used to feed livestock or generate renewable energy, increasing energy content and nutritional value.

Researchers found that disabling the gene for an enzyme known as PDAT had no effect on oil production in seeds, but it dramatically decreased oil production in leaves. But, overexpressing the gene for PDAT resulted in a 60-fold increase in oil production in leaves.

In further experiments, the researchers overexpressed a gene that caused extra production of a protein which kept the oil droplets from fusing together. When the two genes were both overexpressed, there was a 160-fold increase in oil production.

By using radio-labeled carbon (C-14), researchers were able to decipher the biochemical mechanism for increased oil production.

One researcher noted that leaves produced with overexpression of PDAT would provide almost twice the oil yield, by weight, that can be obtained from canola seeds, one of the widely used crops for food and biodiesel  production.

More research will be required to apply the techniques to bioenergy or food crops. Work is now being done to explore the effect of gene overexpression in biomass crops such as sugarcane.

Read more…

Pioneers in Nuclear Field: Hahn, Meitner, and Strassman

Among the pioneers in nuclear science is a trio of people who first realized that the uranium atom could be split by bombarding it with neutrons. The trio? Otto Hahn, Lise Meitner, and Fritz Strassman were those pioneers.Early in his career, Hahn isolated radioactive thorium. Lise Meitner was just the second woman to receive a doctorate in science from the University of Vienna in 1905. Eventually, the team of Meitner and Hahn worked with Strassman. They were deeply involved in studies of the products resulting from neutron bombardment of uranium.Read more about their work and how World War II impacted their lives and work at

Research Activity for Your Students

Constructing a Time Line of Developments in Nuclear Science


Learn about the early development of atomic and nuclear science

Develop teamwork by sharing information

Use standard library resources such as an encyclopedia, specialized science encyclopedia, or reference materials. A computer and internet access will provide quicker access to many resources.  Read More…

What is the Higgs?

The link below will take you to a simplified explanation of what the Higgs boson is. Black and white drawings lead you step-by-step to an improved understanding of the Higgs.

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