But with the new device, the researchers expect to be able to deliver more electricity than the Z machine can, increasing the temperature in a fuel pellet and causing more fusion to occur–potentially producing an explosion with significantly more energy than it takes to start the reaction. The device could also make it possible to ignite a fuel pellet every 10 seconds, providing a continuous supply of heat to make steam and drive a generator.
To create this amount of fusion, the researchers will need to build many of these devices, linking them together to form modules, several of which would themselves be arranged around a central point, where the fuel pellet could be dropped and ignited. Such a system would deliver in an extremely short burst far more power than is created by all the power plants in the United States.
Still, don’t expect the Sandia technology to head to commercialization anytime soon. Even if money were no object, it could take 30 years to build a system, says Keith Matzen, director of pulsed power projects at Sandia.
Others think the engineering challenges involved in harnessing rapid series of large explosions are likely to prove just too difficult. With the new device, says Ian Hutchinson, professor of nuclear science and engineering at MIT, the Sandia and Tomsk researchers have scaled a 500-foot hill. The work they’ve yet to do is the equivalent of a 25,000-foot mountain. Several other researchers concur, noting that the Sandia researchers must also demonstrate that the system can produce the levels of fusion that their models predict.