Photography & Filming

Nuclear Fusion! The Power of the Sun…

Humankind has an eternal fascination for the sun. Understandable. The center of the universe, the flame in the sky around which all life rotates. We worship it, raising our hands and faces upwards to seek its warmth. We despair without it. Absent the sun, darkness of life and spirit occurs. We bask and bake in it, flocking to beaches, drenched in oil, veritably roasting in its rays. We need it for things to grow and sustain life, and have consequently tried in various ways to harness its astonishing power. This has produced mixed results. On the positive side of the ledger–solar power! As a for instance. On the flip side, can anyone forget Doc Ock? “The power of the sun in the palm of my hand!” Okay, hold the phone on that one.

The holy grail of channeling the sun’s power has always been nuclear fusion. In nakedly simple terms, the goal is to produce endless clean, sustainable power by creating a series of nuclear fusion reactions inside of formidably complex establishments known, logically, as nuclear fusion reactors. The game is to blast the bejesus out of lighter atomic nuclei so hard, with so much power, that they fuse into a heavier nucleus, and release energy. This, scientifically speaking, is not a walk in the park. The physics, the engineering, the exactitude brought to bear on this hyper complex frontier in nuclear fusion is next level.

NIF just did it. The National Ignition Facility, located at Lawrence Livermore Labs in California, just achieved a result where the return of energy (output) was greater than the energy input. There is still a long way to go, but this is unbelievably significant news, certainly more important than say, where a reality TV star is vacationing for the holidays.

Below, scientists are portrayed with a mix of the myriad tools in this giant assemblage of moving parts. Elizabeth Dzinitis with timing targets (many of which get vaporized in the shots), and in the closeup, Patrick Crowley first minutely examines a target and then, applies adhesive with…an eyebrow hair.

Scientist with timing targets at NIF (Nuclear Ignition Facility) for work in laser-based nuclear fusion.
Patrick Crowley, an employee at NIF's Target Pre-Fabrication Facility, bonding Thermal Mechanical Packages (TMP), fill lines, and diagnostic band windows using adhesive placed on an eyebrow hair.

I was fortunate enough to visit NIF twice, some years ago, while it was under the guidance of the visionary Ed Moses, a physicist who understands the value of a photograph, and the fact that scientists can’t simply work endlessly behind the curtain, issuing the occasional arcane white paper about joules and gain factors and expect the public to remain interested in nuclear fusion. Science is fascinating. Science is cool. Science is bloody tough to photograph.

Photograph taken on top of the "Target Chamber" at NIF. A giant sphere in which the desired nuclear fusion reaction will occur.  192 lasers are directed from the laser bays into the center of sphere at a target that is the size of a BB.
Technician, Robert Cook, is pictured.

I mentioned the power to blast atoms is not easily achievable. NIF did it with lasers (there are other types of fusion reactors). But NIF is laser based. 192 of them. Stretching out in laser bays that are, I don’t know exactly, but you could probably play a football game inside the building. When the team goes for “a shot” these lasers are brought to bear on a target about the size of a pencil eraser, which is suspended in the middle of a target chamber about ten meters wide. Explosions occur. 500 trillion watts of power, delivered in about 20 billionths of a second. I mean, I love The Rock, but Black Adam, step aside. (Though enjoyed the movie!)

The target chamber, seen below, is designed to defeat light, and is blackened by all the blasting from test shots. It used to look pristine and gleaming, such as below, which was the first time I got a glimpse of it. So shiny was this giant, metallic golf ball that I only used one flash. Bare tube. Ricocheted all over the place.

Target Chamber at NIF

But no longer. The nuclear blasts inside the chamber have not only darkened it, but have it dripping in radiation. This was where I had to go. Ascending on a lifter, Dave Bower, the gentleman who went in with me said, as we were ascending, “Joe, not too many people get a chance to do this!” An amazing and enthusiastic guide. Helped me out endlessly inside there, as I had to work my cameras through heavy plastic, gloves, a hazmat type suit, forced air, and a shielded visor. And then try my best to focus the damn camera. But I had to chuckle. In my head I was like, “Yeah, going into a radiation field! I love my job!”

Ascending into the target chamber below.

John R. Bower looks up from the TCSS (Target Chamber Service System) as it makes its way inside of the target chamber at NIF.

Arriving at the target with John Bower. Given the encumbrances of the heavy plastic swaddling my cameras, I really went old school on the lighting, by the way. Dropped two heavy duty strobes down through the portals into the chamber, themselves heavily wrapped in plastic. Also dropped sensor eyes. Triggered the whole damn thing with a single Nikon Speedlight.

Another view of the chamber. And, as you can see, it’s no longer shiny and new. It’s weathered the impact of hundreds of test explosions.

For this view, I had to be harnessed and slid down one of the access portals that populate the target chamber.

This was where some of the fun started. I was shooting a 16mm fisheye, and had to stretch my arms out full extension to try to get that super-wide lens past the portals where my lights had been dropped into. In doing so, my protective suit separated at the wrist and my skin brushed the interior of the chamber. This was observed of course, and immediately when I came out, that area of my arm had to be swabbed down and, as I remember, skin samples taken. I had to have urine tests for the next three days, etc. About a month or so downstream I received notification that I had received no significant exposure to radiation.

Definitely one of the most unusual and stirring assignments I ever had. A window onto complexity beyond my imagining. Scientists grappling with the primordial power of the sun. Not for the faint of heart. To have faith in this process, ongoing as it is, to borrow from Matt Damon in the film, The Martian, they have to “science the shit out of this.”

Hence it was a privilege to be there, especially with my extraordinarily talented crew. Drew Gurian, Michael Cali, and Mike Grippi.

And me, I just kind of continue to glow in the dark. 😉

Wonderful story. Wonderful opportunity to shoot hardcore science at work, something I have always loved to do, and continue to welcome. In some ways, emblematic of the life and career of a photog. By virtue of carrying a camera, we often are allowed to see that which many cannot. We have an extraordinary window into so many different realms of the human experience. A blessing of this endeavor.

And another emblem of a photog’s life? Nat Geo killed the story. Never published a frame. That’s ok. I have the photos! And still standing, shooting jobs, camera in hand.

More tk….

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