KMS Fusion was the only private sector company to pursue controlled thermonuclear fusion research using laser technology. Despite limited resources and numerous business problems KMS successfully demonstrated fusion from the Inertial Confinement Fusion (ICF) process. They achieved compression of a deuterium-tritium pellet from laser-energy in December 1973, and on May 1, 1974 carried out the world’s first successful laser-induced fusion. Neutron-sensitive nuclear emulsion detectors, developed by Nobel Prize winner Robert Hofstadter, were used to provide evidence of this discovery.
In 1968, Keith A. Brueckner, a theoretical physicist, was working at a KMS Industries subsidiary in southern California. He also spent several days a year consulting for the Atomic Energy Commission's (AEC) magnetic confinement program, which allowed him to observe first hand the interest in laser fusion in the Soviet Union. He came back to the states and worked out “a new idea” that involved compression and implosion. He proposed the idea to Kip Siegel, the founder and monetary force behind KMS Industries Inc. Siegel had founded KMS Industries, a company whose name was his own initials, on February 8, 1967 in Ann Arbor, Michigan. He did so after disagreeing with the direction in which his previous company, Conductron Corporation, was headed when McDonnell Douglas Corporation absorbed it. Siegel continuously sought out investors to fund the exploration of holography and production of other high tech electronic equipment, but investor interest had peaked by 1969. With Brueckner’s new idea, Siegel turned his ambitions to what he had hoped would be a more realistic future: using powerful lasers to heat and compress deuterium pellets. KMS Fusion was created in 1969 with the dream of developing fusion power.
However, the AEC had considered laser fusion to be directly related to weapons development, and the news of KMS Fusion’s entry into the field raised many eyebrows. The commission directed KMS to stop its laser fusion research on these grounds. Siegel hired lawyers and even wrote a letter to President Nixon to refute these issues. In February 1971, two years after the proposed idea, KMS was granted a contract from the commission that would allow the company to work in laser fusion. KMS Fusion was under government control; however, the firm was without government funds and access to government information. This meant that they could not hire anyone who had worked in a weapons laboratory, and had to be completely privately funded. The delays that the commission were causing placed financial strains on the company before it even really began. KMS was required to hire guards and take other precautions to protect ideas that the government had decreed to be "secret" for reasons of national security. Siegel had to mortgage his other enterprises and enlist other private companies in order to secure funding. KMS’s confidence did stimulate public support for laser fusion research, but also put pressure on magnetic confinement technologies.
Laser Fusion Research
In Siegel’s 1974 address to the stockholders, he publicly announced that KMS Fusion had “produced for the first time anywhere, to the best of [the company’s] knowledge, true thermonuclear neutrons by laser-driven implosion of a deuterium pellet.” The first test occurred May 1, 1974 and it was repeated successfully three more times on May 3, 1974 and May 9, 1974. While the first two tests involved solely Deuterium pellets, the second two tests involved Deuterium-Tritium (DT) pellets. KMS Fusion used a method called inertial confinement to obtain fusion.
Inertial confinement fusion (ICF) was not a new concept when KMS Fusion began research on the topic. Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory had a program dedicated to ICF as well as the University of Rochester and the Naval Research Laboratory. These programs were well-funded by the AEC; however, they were unable to achieve ICF. Lacking the government support, KMS Fusion was pressured to keep costs low and still obtain ICF. The main problem many of the research programs faced was uniformly applying energy to the fuel pellet. Most ICF research involved splitting the laser beam into many beams and allowing them to consolidate on the pellet. It became difficult to synchronize and focus the beams on the pellet causing the heating of the pellet to be non-uniform. KMS Fusion found a solution that solved both the cost problem and heating problem. Instead of making several beams, the laser was only split into two beams. Then, using mirrors and lenses, the pellet was uniformly heated. KMS Fusion’s resourcefulness put them ahead of the government-funded laboratories and allowed them to achieve compression of the deuterium tritium pellet in December 1973. This was a necessary precursor to their successful fusion attempts in the following May.
KMS Fusion’s success provided implications for the future. Naturally, these experiments produced a gateway into the realm of ICF as a source of electricity. However, there was another implication from these experiments. If ICF could reach ignition, it could be used to produce hydrocarbons, such as methane, for fuel. This was the primary goal of KMS Fusion: they wanted to create organic fuels. This would allow the United States to become independent of other energy sources because the energy from fusion would be virtually limitless.
After these initial experiments, KMS Fusion had several goals for the future. According to the reports, the neutron yield was small: around 104 to 3x105 neutrons. Their short-term goal was to increase the neutron yield. The company believed this to be possible with the expertise and technology their facilities had. In terms of long-term goals, KMS Fusion wanted to achieve scientific breakeven by 1976, engineering breakeven by 1977, an operating high-repetition rate laser system by 1978, and an operating gas pilot plant by 1981. None of these goals were achieved. This was due to the lack of financing and the misinterpretation of ICF science. The only goal originally set by KMS Fusion to be achieved was scientific breakeven. According to official reports, the [National Ignition Facility] (NIF) achieved scientific breakeven in September 2013. With these goals in mind, KMS was making progress in designing reactor walls for hydrogen production, but continued experiencing financial difficulties. Kip Siegel even noted, “the major obstacle is me and my ability to raise money. I don’t think its science anymore. It’s financial breakeven”. The company was facing a severe monetary disadvantage without government funding, and was only saved by the death of its founder Kip Siegel on March 14, 1975. He experienced a heart attack while testifying before Congress defending KMS, and the company was able to survive for another year on his life insurance before turning to federal funding.
The Experimental Setup
In order for KMS Fusion to achieve ICF, the following equipment was necessary: a mode-locked YAG oscillator, a CILAS vk640 laser, an 80-mm rod amplifier, seven 10-cm clear-aperture GE disk amplifier units, two aspheric mirrors, and two ellipsoidal lenses. A single 30 ps pulse started at the oscillator by a laser-driven spark gap was divided into a specific number of temporarily delayed pulses which were attenuated and recombined into a tailored pulse shape. The initial pulse was kept short in order to protect the laser from damage. The tailored pulse was amplified by the laser and the 80-mm amplifier and then, after travelling 30 m, it entered the GE disk amplifiers where it was split into two sub-beams. These sub-beams, using the lenses and the mirrors, were directed onto the fuel pellet to provide energy.
In order for the laser energy applied to the fuel pellet to be nearly uniform and orthogonal to the surface of the pellet, the pellet needed to be aligned perfectly. The pellet needed to be placed in the focus point of both of the mirrors. This is achieved by “using a continuous wave YAG laser which is collinear with and is divergence-matched to main laser.” Once the KMS Fusion team had the correct setup, they used small longitudinal displacements to apply the laser energy uniformly. The fuel pellets KMS Fusion used consisted of Deuterium or DT-filled glass pellets. The fuel gas diffused into the glass through heating under pressure. The gas is trapped in the pellet when it is cooled. After KMS Fusion started using government contracts for funding, they primarily became a fuel pellet fabrication facility. They perfected the method to producing fuel pellets to the point where they were able to produce them for less than a hundredth of a cent.
In May 1978, a report by Comptroller General Elmer B. Staats to the Chairman of the House Committee on Armed Services was submitted that reviewed two prior government contracts of KMS Fusion. The two contracts in under review were the first two years of public funding for KMS Fusion. The Department of Energy (DoE) had awarded KMS Fusion contracts for 1976 and 1977. After the death of Kip Siegel in 1975, KMS Fusion survived for one year on his life insurance but then needed a way to earn funding, resulting in new government contracts. By February 10, 1978 KMS Fusion had received $22 million in federal funding.
The 1976 contract had some lofty goals set for KMS Fusion. Their main goal was the generation of power from laser fusion; however, KMS Fusion also developed a new laser system, new targets and new ways of target fabrication. The targets used were large-diameter thin-walled targets made of glass, plastic or layers of both. They also developed targets that were completely solid, filled with a liquid, or filled with a gas to examine which would generate the most power. The only failure of the contract was that generation of power was not achieved by laser fusion. The failure was contributed to “specifying laser power based on calculations which could not adequately predict laser performance and from using dirty laser optical equipment”. This meant that the laser power received did not match with predicted power and therefore laser fusion could not be achieved at this lower power. KMS Fusion did not have sophisticated enough codes to model their laser power output so a partnership with Lawrence Livermore National Lab (LLNL) was formed. Livermore codes showed that KMS Fusion would receive 25% of the originally predicted laser power from their system. Other than the failure to generate power from laser fusion, the DoE stated that KMS Fusion’s work exceeded contract requirements.
The 1977 contract was very similar to the 1976 contract but focused on fixing the problems that arose during the previous contract. New targets were fabricated, this time double-shelled glass spheres were produced, and the targets were suspended in the air so that they could be uniformly irradiated. Since blaming the failure of power generation from laser fusion on dirty equipment, many steps were taken to improve KMS Fusion’s lab space. The laser’s optics was cleaned and the whole system enclosed so that contaminants would not affect the system. After cleaning the laser power observed doubled from the previous year. Working again with LLNL, KMS used the computer codes to model their laser power and improve laser performance. However, KMS Fusion failed to generate power from laser fusion. While making vast improvements in the area of target fabrication, fusion power still eluded them.
After review of these two contracts by the DoE, it was determined that the development of fusion power be left in the hands of the national labs. These labs had the resources, including computer codes and expensive laser systems, to have the best shot at producing laser fusion. The DoE suggested that KMS Fusion should still investigate target fabrication and laser-target interactions. The DoE saw KMS Fusion involved by “commercial mass production of laser fusion targets” and that is what they did for the national labs that could not make their own targets. KMS Fusion was involved in this role until they went under in 1993 after competition for a new DoE contract was opened.
In the later years of KMS Fusion’s life they were known for being a tritium handling facility due to their focus on the development of laser fusion targets. When the company went under, it was not properly closed down in terms of radiation regulations. In 1995, the DoE selected LLNL to team up with the DoE’s Oakland Operations Office to decontaminate, decommission, and close out the facility. Livermore was selected because of its existing expertise in handling bulk tritium and low-level radioactive waste. The KMS Fusion facility was abandoned for almost two years before cleanup began. During this time, Michigan’s cold winters had caused some of the pipes to freeze and burst. This resulted in flooding in areas where chemicals were kept, spreading contamination. In addition, when firefighters were fighting a fire in a copier room, some tritium had spread inside the building. “The project was accomplished efficiently and effectively as a result of DOE and LLNL working together to return the facility to the owner for unrestricted use.” Phillip E. Hill.
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- Gene Bylinsky, “KMS Industries bets its Life on Laser Fusion”, Fortune December 1974, Box 1, K.M. Siegel, Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan
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- “KMS Announces Major New Progress in Obtaining Energy from Laser Fusion”, 13 May 1974, Box 1, K.M. Siegel, Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan
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- Paul Rincon, “Nuclear Fusion Milestone Passed at U.S. Lab”, BBC News, 7 October 2013, Accessed 10 December 2013, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-24429621
- KMS Fusion, Inc., “Experimental Study of Laser Driven Compression of Spherical Glass Shells”, 26 September 1974, Box 1, K.M. Siegel, Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan
- The Participation of KMS Fusion, Inc., in the Department of Energy’s Laser Fusion Program, Elmer B. Staats, May 4, 1978; http://www.gao.gov/assets/130/122282.pdf
- LLNL and DOE Collaborate on Successful Fusion Facility Cleanup. Science & Technology Review. June 1996.