Star power: Corning technology helps achieve nuclear fusion breakthrough


It’s a clean-energy dream decades in the making.

Could scientists here on Earth create controlled nuclear fusion – the reaction powering stars like the sun? Transforming common hydrogen atoms found in seawater into an unlimited source of safe, carbon-free energy? Improving people’s lives while protecting the planet?  

Now more than ever, the answer seems to be yes. And Corning’s advanced optics technologies played a vital role in the latest milestone of this quest.

On Dec. 5, 2022, a team at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory’s (LLNL) National Ignition Facility (NIF) in California achieved “ignition” from a fusion reaction experiment — producing more energy than the amount of laser energy used to drive it.

To produce fusion ignition, the LLNL’s National Ignition Facility uses laser energy to create temperatures and pressures like those in the cores of stars.

This energy-gain accomplishment was and is a big deal.

U.S. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm hailed it as “one of the most impressive scientific feats of the 21st century,” on par with the Wright brothers’ first flight at Kitty Hawk.  

U.S. Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm shares the nuclear fusion news.

More than 2,500 large, beam-focusing lenses made from Corning® HPFS® Fused Silica helped ensure NIF’s 192 lasers simultaneously focused on a tiny hydrogen fuel pellet within the same 20 billionths of a second, setting in motion the unprecedented, energy-gain fusion reaction.

“Corning’s advanced optics technologies play an essential role in moving our world forward,” says John Bayne, senior vice president and general manager, Corning Mobile Consumer Electronics. “We’re thrilled to have contributed optical components for LLNL’s fusion experiments which could ultimately lead to cleaner energy sources that prolong the health of our environment.”

Jubilation summed up the mood of Corning’s Aerospace & Defense team members in Canton, New York, upon learning of the breakthrough.

“What could be more exciting and satisfying than helping to make scientific history? We are so proud to be a part of making the ‘impossible’ possible,” says Dave Navan, a product line manager who’s been collaborating with LLNL on the project since 1998.

“It’s remarkable to see fused silica, a Corning technology invented in the 1930s by Dr. J. Franklin Hyde, being pivotal to today’s leading-edge advancements,” adds Larry Sutton, director of special programs. Larry’s involvement stretches back to the 1980s when Corning first began working with LLNL to develop the Nova laser, the world’s highest energy laser at the time.  

Corning’s Larry Sutton and Dave Navan have been working on fusion-enabling optics for decades.

For researchers, getting to “ignition” has been a 60-plus-year journey.

In the 1960s, a group of LLNL scientists hypothesized that lasers could be used to induce fusion in a laboratory, an idea that became known as inertial confinement fusion (ICF). On Earth, two hydrogen atoms would normally repel each other. But in a star like the sun, strong gravitational pressure fuses such atoms together, releasing tremendous energy in the process. NIF physicists had to replicate those core-of-stars conditions, producing temperatures tens of millions of degrees higher and pressures many billion times greater than Earth’s atmosphere.

It wasn’t easy.

“When the NIF project was first mapped out, there were big gaps in the technology. New inventions were needed to make the lasers viable, let alone affordable,” says Larry. “At Corning, we needed to reinvent our typically round optics to be square-shaped, change our manufacturing to larger-size boules with increased diameters and thicknesses, and be able to do it cost effectively.”  

Corning’s Dr. J. Franklin Hyde invented fused silica in the 1930s.

As with other “moonshot” endeavors, the work that’s gone into overcoming fusion’s engineering challenges has already had positive ramifications across multiple industries, medicine, and more.

“Our innovating optics for larger-sized capabilities at NIF enabled Corning to create the Destiny Nadir Window (the highest optical-quality window in space) for the Window Observational Research Facility on the International Space Station,” says Larry. “It’s also led to superior spectrophotometer lenses for ground-based astronomy.”

Fusion’s potential for clean energy has kept motivation high.

“Solar and wind won’t be enough to meet demand, especially as demand grows,” says Dave. “Current nuclear fission-based plants are one part of the puzzle, but they have downsides in terms of uranium supply and radioactive waste. We need something else. Fusion could be a 24/7, abundant power solution for thousands of years.”

Emphasis on the word “could.”  

The target chamber of LLNL’s National Ignition Facility, where 192 laser beams delivered more than 2 million joules of ultraviolet energy to a tiny fuel pellet to create fusion ignition on Dec. 5, 2022.

Many more scientific and technological developments are still needed to achieve simple, affordable, reliable access to fusion power. It may take another 20 years, but progress is being made.

In addition to NIF, Corning is contributing to other ICF projects in the U.S. and Europe. “With big science like this, multiple players are tackling different challenges, working together for the greater good,” says Larry.

Remembering the Wright brothers analogy of attaining a few, transformational meters of flight, fusion seekers now have the psychological lift of going from theory to a proof-of-concept prime for real, continual improvement.

“With ignition achieved, the ICF community now has momentum on their side,” says Dave. “We can’t wait to see where the technology goes from here.”