To compress and heat the fuel, energy is delivered to the outer layer of the target using high-energy beams of laser light, electrons or ions, although for a variety of reasons, almost all ICF devices as of 2015 have used lasers. The heated outer layer explodes outward, producing a reaction force against the remainder of the target, accelerating it inwards, compressing the target. This process is designed to create shock waves that travel inward through the target. A sufficiently powerful set of shock waves can compress and heat the fuel at the center so much that fusion reactions occur.
The energy released by these reactions will then heat the surrounding fuel, and if the heating is strong enough this could also begin to undergo fusion. The aim of ICF is to produce a condition known as ignition, where this heating process causes a chain reaction that burns a significant portion of the fuel. Typical fuel pellets are about the size of a pinhead and contain around 10 milligrams of fuel: in practice, only a small proportion of this fuel will undergo fusion, but if all this fuel were consumed it would release the energy equivalent to burning a barrel of oil.
ICF is one of two major branches of fusion energy research, the other being magnetic confinement fusion. When it was first proposed in the early 1970s, ICF appeared to be a practical approach to fusion power production and the field flourished. Experiments during the 1970s and '80s demonstrated that the efficiency of these devices was much lower than expected, and reaching ignition would not be easy. Throughout the 1980s and '90s, many experiments were conducted in order to understand the complex interaction of high-intensity laser light and plasma. These led to the design of newer machines, much larger, that would finally reach ignition energies.
The largest operational ICF experiment is the National Ignition Facility (NIF) in the
Fusion reactions combine lighter atoms, such as hydrogen, together to form larger ones. Generally the reactions take place at such high temperatures that the atoms have been ionized, their electrons stripped off by the heat; thus, fusion is typically described in terms of "nuclei" instead of "atoms".
Nuclei are positively charged, and thus repel each other due to the electrostatic force. Overcoming this repulsion costs a considerable amount of energy, which is known as the Coulomb barrier or fusion barrier energy. Generally, less energy will be needed to cause lighter nuclei to fuse, as they have less charge and thus a lower barrier energy, and when they do fuse, more energy will be released. As the mass of the nuclei increase, there is a point where the reaction no longer gives off net energy—the energy needed to overcome the energy barrier is greater than the energy released in the resulting fusion reaction.
The best fuel from an energy perspective is a one-to-one mix of deuterium and tritium; both are heavy isotopes of hydrogen. The D-T (deuterium & tritium) mix has a low barrier because of its high ratio of neutrons to protons. The presence of neutral neutrons in the nuclei helps pull them together via the nuclear force, while the presence of positively charged protons pushes the nuclei apart via electrostatic force. Tritium has one of the highest ratios of neutrons to protons of any stable or moderately unstable nuclide—two neutrons and one proton. Adding protons or removing neutrons increases the energy barrier.
A mix of D-T at standard conditions does not undergo fusion; the nuclei must be forced together before the nuclear force can pull them together into stable collections. Even in the hot, dense center of the sun, the average proton will exist for billions of years before it fuses. For practical fusion power systems, the rate must be dramatically increased; heated to tens of millions of degrees, and/or compressed to immense pressures. The temperature and pressure required for any particular fuel to fuse is known as the Lawson criterion. These conditions have been known since the 1950s when the first H-bombs were built. To meet the Lawson Criterion is extremely difficult on Earth, which explains why fusion research has taken many years to reach the current high state of technical prowess.