Laser quest: The scientist with a planet-saving plan straight out of Spider-Man

Berkshire boy Dr Brian MacGowan might look an unlikely hero, but with 192 laser beams at his fingertips, a research chamber that resembles the Death Star and a plan straight out of a Spider-Man story line, he might just have the answer to all our energy problems


Clean energy forever. That, in a glorious theoretical nutshell, is what nuclear fusion – the reaction that gives stars and hydrogen bombs their immense power – could deliver. The urgency of the climate-change debate and the renewed impetus to tackle the 21st century's glaring energy problems have put fusion back on the agenda... and, thanks to key contributions from the British-trained scientist Dr Brian MacGowan, the highly volatile process may be harnessed to provide us with a viable source of green electricity sooner than previously expected.

Staff at the National Ignition Facility (NIF) in central California are confident that some time in 2010, they will create a fusion reaction by focusing 192 intense ultra-violet lasers on to a tiny golden pellet, recreating the energy of the sun for a fraction of a second, thereby paving the way to a carbon-neutral future without global warming or nuclear waste. If all goes to plan, the implications would fairly reflect California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's recent description of the project as "monumental". Fusion, we're told, could be mankind's salvation – but what are the chances of translating theory into practice?

From the outside, NIF – based within the grounds of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory – doesn't look much: a big aircraft hanger, you might presume, or an oversized warehouse. Surrounded by the bucolic Tri-Valley region hills, half-an-hour due east from San Francisco Bay, it sits unassumingly between the high-street wine bistros of Pleasanton (once labelled "The Most Desperate Town in the West") and Altamont Raceway Park, where the Rolling Stones played their infamous free concert in 1969. NIF's exterior offers little clue to what goes on there – but inside, it's a different story.

Once granted security clearance – which, for a non-US national, means draconian passport checks – I'm taken to meet Dr MacGowan, 49, the man in charge of those lasers. A family man with two grown-up kids and a home in San Francisco, he was born in West Germany (his father was in the RAF) and raised in leafy Maidenhead, Berkshire. He attended Imperial College, London, before writing his fusion-related thesis at Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, Didcot. Drawn to the US by the promise of access to new experimental facilities, he relocated in 1985, and carried out specialist work in X-rays and plasmas before devoting his attention to fusion.

At 6ft-plus, MacGowan has a willowy frame, and a pallid complexion exaggerated by his silvered hair: it seems that the serious business of harnessing the power of the sun means lack of exposure to its tanning rays. Appropriately enough, he tends to make unblinking, laser-like eye contact. "When I look forward to what my grandkids are going to be faced with, I really worry about fuels," he admits. "People talk about renewable energy – solar, waves, wind – but that's a tiny fraction of the amount of energy we really need. Even if you leave aside global warming, it's just really scary. So the fact that there's this possibility [of fusion], even though it might be really hard to implement, just gives me hope that we're not heading for some kind of nuclear winter-type environment out of an old science-fiction movie."

Measured and thoughtful in his responses, MacGowan makes no attempt to evade the scepticism brewed by talk of the quest for so-called "holy grail" energy sources, fusion in particular, but there's no mistaking the glimmer of optimistic conviction in his eyes: "People say about fusion energy that it's 30 years away and it'll always be 30 years away, but I think that if we demonstrate that we can make it work, and understand how to make it work better, it would change the whole complexion of that discussion."

Currently, nuclear power stations provide about 16 per cent of the world's electricity by means of fission – the splitting of atomic nuclei – a process that produces great ' energy, with the downside of long-term radioactive waste. The advantages of fusion – the joining of nuclei – are almost too good to be true: no greenhouse-gas emissions; less hazardous radioactive by-product; no danger of meltdown; and the fuel is... sea water. A third way exists, still in the theoretical stage, christened LIFE – Laser Inertial Fusion-Fission Energy – which combines the best aspects of both processes and uses nuclear waste as fuel: an appealing way to possibly shrink spent nuclear stockpiles.

Specifically, MacGowan is dealing with Inertial Confinement Fusion (ICF), in which his lasers "ignite" two microscopic isotopes of hydrogen – deuterium and tritium – creating helium and unimaginable energy, in line with Einstein's E=MC² equation. It's not that much different, on the most basic theoretical level, to igniting petrol. "If you had a can of gasoline and dropped a match in, you'd get more than the energy of the match. You'd start to burn the fuel." In terms of ICF, no one has yet achieved sufficient ignition to burn the atomic fuel – something MacGowan hopes to change – but in the realms of science fiction, it's a fait accompli. I'm surprised to discover that one recent Hollywood version of a fusion reaction has a solid basis in fact. "Spider-Man 2 has been used multiple times in scientific presentations," says MacGowan, referring to the scene where Alfred Molina's Doctor Octopus proclaims access to "the power of the sun in the palm of my hand" as he shows off a freshly summoned ball of pure, roiling, nuclear energy. "That's a reasonable analogy to the implosion we do – the challenge is to make it as spherical as possible. Of course, [at NIF] this is all happening at [tiny] 100-micron-type scales."

The equipment required for fusion is, however, anything but minuscule. Two mirror-image structures, 10 storeys high, house the most precise laser ever built: a jaw-dropping assemblage of pipes, tubes and ducts are used to focus the required 192 laser beams on to a tiny point at the heart of the target chamber – the business end of the equipment – where MacGowan hopes to ignite his isotopic fuel. More than 30ft in diameter, the chamber resembles a hollow version of the Death Star from Star Wars, lined with dark louvred panels, and portholes for diagnostics. Just standing in front of it makes you want to reach for a lightsaber.

In the target bay, which encases the chamber, there is all the yellow-and-black hazard tape you'd expect from any self-respecting Bond villain's secret training base. Cage-style elevators sound an alarm whenever you enter or leave them, and the floor outside each entrance is covered by a sticky white mat, like flypaper, to trap shoe dust. Everyone wears a hairnet, hard hat and – in a reassuring throwback to O-level chemistry – protective glasses.

Employee family portraits, with the target chamber as backdrop, serve to mellow the undeniable severity of the place, as does the appearance of a technician in a dorky Einstein T-shirt, as he lopes past pristine silver gun-like structures – the vast final optics-assembly cannons. The whole set-up has the menacing look of high-tech weaponry and, although the NIF lasers could not be fired in anger, there is a military connection. "One of the reasons NIF was built was to study the physics of nuclear weapons," says MacGowan. "It's part of the long-term ability of the United States, and other countries, to understand them. NIF uses a pulsed laser system, which isn't to say that, if it was run into you, it wouldn't hurt: it's just that it's not a very practical weapon."

On 10 March 2009, at 3.15am, MacGowan and the NIF team reached a world-first power milestone by successfully testing the laser beams at the 1.1 megajoule level – that's an ignition-worthy degree of energy, the culmination of 15 years' work. An adrenaline rush followed. "To be brutally honest, what I felt was incredible fear," admits MacGowan. "The things that I'm responsible for are now coming on to the front burner, and we have a lot of stuff to do in a short amount of time. But I also felt incredible pride in [everyone's] work. The laser pulse that we put in is a few billionths of a second, and within that pulse shape, there are features that have to be adjusted very precisely."

When MacGowan refers to "precision", he means it in the most meticulously calibrated sense. We're not just talking about a neatly slotted pass from midfield, or a nice piece of parallel parking... this work demands accuracy on a scale that's barely conceivable by everyday standards. The lasers take 90 seconds' worth of charging power from the national grid and compress it into a pulse that lasts for about a 10th of a billionth of a second. Only at that astonishingly brief moment are the conditions right for ignition.

Admittedly, the untrained, un-beautiful mind tends to glaze over, numbed by the sheer technological difficulty of what's being attempted, and – aware that my host is simplifying incredibly complex work for a physics dunderhead such as myself – I struggle to disguise the fact that the teacher-toddler dynamics of the nursery school have just been successfully recreated in a laboratory setting. NIF brings on a feeling of bewilderment in the face of incredible physics, but it also offers an opportunity to wade through dense thickets of acronyms and collect mind-blowing analogies, so that the world of the layman might have some point of contact with that of the hardcore, life-changing scientist.

The accuracy of MacGowan's lasers, according to NIF's brochure, "can be compared to standing on the pitcher's mound at AT&T Park in San Francisco and throwing a strike at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles, some 350 miles away". Elsewhere, I'm told to digest the idea that a dollar bill (or a paperclip) contains the energy of one nuclear explosion, and I'm also asked to imagine the pressure of 10 aircraft carriers on my thumb... which I imagine equates to the same levels of duress under which MacGowan habitually works. So, how does he deal with the stress?

"I worry – that's what I do. A lot of people on this project are working under a lot of pressure. It's been a long time duration, and it's increasing now. I try to make a break at the weekends and get away, but then I still find myself working. I do a lot of running. If I find that if I have a lot of issues, I go out for a run, and about halfway through the run I start to figure out solutions. Another way of dealing with the stresses is to work as a team, support each other. Other than that," he concedes, "I worry."

So, will Inertial Confinement Fusion really work? "When we do our first ignition shot [in 2010] we'll be very confident we'll succeed," says MacGowan. "We have a series of about 100 experiments to do before then, which will establish that we've adjusted the laser and the target, and the design of the target, sufficiently well to have a high confidence of ignition. It's not like, now we've built NIF, we'll just start shooting hit and miss."

MacGowan believes NIF's major contribution to fusion energy will be demonstrating the fact that it works, and – all being well – he expects a "prototype energy production capability" to follow by 2020. "[Before building] the internal combustion engine, you demonstrate the principle that if you put a spark plug in a mixture of gasoline and air, it will release energy, right? Once you've shown that it works, then building the pistons and the drive train and all that stuff is just a different engineering problem. The whole world is watching us – the Japanese, the Europeans, other people in the States – because NIF will establish the credibility of the things they want to do, to develop [fusion] as a power source."

One final question remains: if NIF cracks ignition, how will MacGowan celebrate? A look of uncertainty crosses his face. Then a smile. "Actually," he says, "I can't imagine."

Dr Brian MacGowan's guide to nuclear fusion

ITER International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor

Location: South of France

Method: Magnetic confinement fusion

The basic idea: Vast magnets are used in a doughnut-shaped machine that generates temperatures of tens of millions of degrees and confines fusion fuel as a plasma, rather than compressing it with lasers in the manner of NIF. The first ITER fusion reaction is anticipated in 2022

Doc MacGowan's verdict: "We're about 15 years ahead of ITER. But after we have demonstrated the credibility of ignition, ITER might compete with us to get to a prototype fusion power plant"

HiPER High Power laser Energy Research

Location: TBC (probably UK)

Method: Fast ignition fusion

The basic idea: Like NIF, HiPER is a laser-driven inertial confinement fusion system in which smaller lasers (hence lower construction costs) are aimed at pellets of hydrogen fired across a steel vacuum chamber. Construction should start around 2015, with operation forecast for the early 2020s

Doc MacGowan's verdict: "HiPER, and FIREX, which they will build in Japan, is geared toward fast ignition – and may be really promising"

LENR Low Energy Nuclear Reactions

Location: Multiple laboratories worldwide, but no major single programme

Method: Cold fusion

The basic idea: The process, discredited in the light of unprovable claims made by the electrochemists Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischmann in 1989, is based on the belief that heat-giving nuclear reactions can be stimulated at room temperature

Doc MacGowan's verdict: "I don't think it's a serious competitor. It's important to be creative, but you should be careful taking results and extrapolating them too far"

Young Winstone: His ‘tough-guy’ image is a misconception
Adnan Januzaj and Gareth Bale
footballManchester United set to loan out Januzaj to make room for Bale - if a move for the Welshman firms up
Arts and Entertainment
Ellie Levenson’s The Election book demystifies politics for children
bookNew children's book primes the next generation for politics
Outspoken: Alexander Fury, John Rentoul, Ellen E Jones and Katy Guest
newsFrom the Scottish referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Yaya Sanogo, Mats Hummels, Troy Deeney and Adnan Januzaj
footballMost Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
Arts and Entertainment
L to R: Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), Captain America (Chris Evans) & Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) in Avengers Assemble
Nigel Farage celebrates with a pint after early local election results in the Hoy and Helmet pub in South Benfleet in Essex
peopleHe has shaped British politics 'for good or ill'
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams' “Happy” was the most searched-for song lyric of 2014
musicThe power of song never greater, according to our internet searches
Tim Sherwood raises his hand after the 1-0 victory over Stoke
footballFormer Tottenham boss leads list of candidates to replace Neil Warnock
Arts and Entertainment
Sink the Pink's 2013 New Year's Eve party
musicFour of Britain's top DJs give their verdict on how to party into 2015
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers
voicesIt has been hard to form generally accepted cultural standards since the middle of the 19th century – and the disintegration is only going to accelerate, says DJ Taylor
Arts and Entertainment
Roffey says: 'All of us carry shame and taboo around about our sexuality. But I was determined not to let shame stop me writing my memoir.'
Caplan says of Jacobs: 'She is a very collaborative director, and gives actors a lot of freedom. She makes things happen.'
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Selby Jennings: VP/SVP Credit Quant- NY- Investment Bank

Not specified: Selby Jennings: VP/SVP Credit Quant Top tier investment bank i...

Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executive- City of London, Old Street

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executiv...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: An international organisa...

Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwickshire

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwicksh...

Day In a Page

War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

The West needs more than a White Knight

Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

The stories that defined 2014

From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?
Finally, a diet that works: Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced

Finally, a diet that works

Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced
Say it with... lyrics: The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches

Say it with... lyrics

The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches
Professor Danielle George: On a mission to bring back the art of 'thinkering'

The joys of 'thinkering'

Professor Danielle George on why we have to nurture tomorrow's scientists today
Monique Roffey: The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections

Monique Roffey interview

The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections
Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

Their outrageousness and originality makes the world a bit more interesting, says Ellen E Jones
DJ Taylor: Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

It has been hard to form generally accepted cultural standards since the middle of the 19th century – and the disintegration is only going to accelerate, says DJ Taylor
Olivia Jacobs & Ben Caplan: 'Ben thought the play was called 'Christian Love'. It was 'Christie in Love' - about a necrophiliac serial killer'

How we met

Olivia Jacobs and Ben Caplan
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's breakfasts will revitalise you in time for the New Year

Bill Granger's healthy breakfasts

Our chef's healthy recipes are perfect if you've overindulged during the festive season
Transfer guide: From Arsenal to West Ham - what does your club need in the January transfer window?

Who does your club need in the transfer window?

Most Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
The Last Word: From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015

Michael Calvin's Last Word

From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015