Last Wednesday’s news out of Lawrence Livermore National Lab about a recent advancement toward achieving break-even energy, or “ignition,” is certainly positive. In case you haven’t heard, for the first time ever, National Ignition Facility (NIF) researchers have successfully extracted more energy from controlled nuclear fusion than the energy in fuel used to trigger it, as detailed in this paper published on-line in the journal Nature. If you know anything about the technology involved, you know that NIF researchers, as part of their fusion reactions experiments, must super-cool hydrogen isotopes in a hohlraum target. Specifically, they have to precisely position the fuel capsule and freeze it to cryogenic temperatures (18 K) so that a fusion reaction is more easily achieved.
So, when someone from outside of the field asks just how is cryogenics benefiting practical research, we can talk about how it’s used to advance science in the areas of medicine, transportation, semiconductor, and materials research, but we can also point to ways that cryogenics will, hopefully, one day play an important role in our nation’s energy production.