Once Upon a Sun Shot: Dr. Tammy Ma, Lead, Inertial Fusion Energy Institutional Initiative at LLNL

Aug 1, 2023

Season 3 - Episode 5
Host Yolanda Fintschenko, executive director of Daybreak Labs and i-GATE Innovation Hub, talks with  plasma physicist, Tammy Ma, PhD, Lead of the Inertial Fusion Energy (IFE) Institutional Initiative at Lawrence Livermore National Labs (LLNL).

Tammy is an experimental laser-plasma physicist at the National Ignition Facility (NIF) at the LLNL. Besides doing experiments on the world’s largest, most energetic laser in pursuit of thermonuclear fusion, her current role also encompasses many science outreach activities, including public talks and lectures and media interviews.

Providing for the world’s energy needs is one of the most challenging and urgent issues facing society today. If we can demonstrate sustainable fusion burn — the same reaction that occurs in the sun — we will lay the path toward a clean, abundant energy source for all mankind.

On Dec. 5, 2022, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory recorded a fusion breakthrough at the National Ignition Facility (NIF). 12 years of research culminated in ignition. This historic milestone has prompted global attention and recognition for the LLNL team. Locally, LLNL has been recognized by Innovation Tri-Valley as a GameChangers 2023 award recipient for this critical step  on the path to using inertial fusion ignition as a source of limitless renewable clean energy.

Below are links to sources of information referenced in this podcast:

Read the Episode Transcript
Yolanda  Fintschenko 

We’re here today with Dr. Tammy Ma from Lawrence Livermore National Labs. Lead for the Inertial Fusion Energy Institute Initiative. Welcome. You tell me. So happy to have you here on the pod. So obviously, we’re super interested in everything about laser ignition. But before we get to the “what you do”, I’m very, very interested if you could talk a little bit about yourself and how you got there and a little bit about your current position.

Tammy Ma

Sure. I am an experimental physicist. I’ve been at [Lawrence] Livermore for 13 years now. A little bit longer because I actually was a summer student back in 2001, and then I did some of my graduate work at the lab. So I’ve really grown up with the lab for a while now. But my background is I grew up in Fremont, so I know this area very, very well.

I love the area. My family is here and I did undergrad at Cal Tech in SoCal and then graduate school at UC San Diego. But again, we didn’t have lasers in San Diego, so I actually came up to [Lawrence] Livermore to do most of my research here.


So you’ve grown up in the area in Fremont. You now currently live here in the Tri-Valley?


I live in Pleasanton now.


Fantastic.  And, and you grew up in a way professionally at Lawrence [Lawrence] Livermore National Labs where you are now.


Exactly. Yeah. I was lucky enough to get a summer internship between high school and college and did work that was, you know, completely unrelated to what I do now. Because you’re a student, right?

You don’t know anything. But I loved the national lab environment. I love big science, I love the people. And I knew that I wanted to if I was lucky enough, you know, come back and work at a national lab.


Okay, so let’s segue  into part of the reason you’re here today, Tammy, which is because of the recent achievement by the Lawrence [Lawrence] Livermore National Lab team of the Fusion Ignition event. And congratulations on that, by the way. And also your recent recognition of Lawrence Livermore National Labs by Innovation Tri-Valley at the GameChangers 2023 Award and many, many other subsequent recognitions scientifically and in the press and publicly.

So. Laser ignition fusion is something that everyone is now talking about, but maybe not everybody knows what it is. So maybe you can talk a little bit about laser ignition fusion, the facility that generated it and why it’s important.


Absolutely. So here at the NIF, the National Ignition Facility, this is the world’s largest, most energetic laser, and we use these lasers to initiate fusion, which is the reaction that powers the sun.

And what we’re able to do is in the laboratory, generate miniature stars. And with these stars, we can generate some of the most extreme conditions achievable on earth, very high densities, temperatures, pressures. Well, we can study those and it helps for our national security mission. And then besides that, what this does is actually open up the foundations towards a clean, limitless energy source, because what we were able to do last December was fusion ignition.

This is the holy grail of fusion research, and we’ve been trying to do it for 60 years. The idea is with Fusion, we were able to generate a plasma, which is the ball of burning gas that fed back on itself and with that, we could generate more energy out than we put in with the lasers. And so the NIF can fire up to two megajoules of laser energy.

What we did last December was generate three units of energy at three megajoules. And so that gain of 1.5 50% more energy out than we put in with the lasers exceeded the ignition threshold. And that opens up entirely new paradigms for some of the experiments we want to do. And again, for this clean energy source fusion.


That’s fantastic.

So thank you so much for that explanation. And I am going to try and just recap what I took away from it just to make sure. But it sounds like what you’re talking about is an achievement That’s been in the making for 60 years. You’ve achieved this holy grail of fusion using lasers, and the proof was basically that you were able to generate more energy that you put into it for the first time using lasers to induce this fusion event.

Did I get it?


Yeah, that’s exactly right. And you totally hit the nail on the head. It’s 60 years in the making and an enormous team here at [Lawrence] Livermore. We’ve been trying to do this since basically the laser was invented. And the NIF, the National Ignition Facility is actually the ninth in a series of lasers that was continuously larger, more energetic, and increased our scientific understanding until we got to last December, where we were able to achieve basically what we had set out to do 60 years ago.

And it’s taken not just, you know, bigger, better lasers, but, you know, every kind of technological advancement that you can imagine. New materials, new lasers, a computational understanding. But also we had to rely on supercomputers being built so that they could simulate these experiments that we have. And so what you see here is, you know, we require something like a national lab to bring all of these different capabilities together to tackle really, really difficult problems like fusion.


So because you have the resources of the national labs, you’ve been able to bring together not only the material resources to do this, but also the intellectual resources to invent all the things you needed to invent in order to reach this enormous stretch goal.


Absolutely. So there’s a really cool story. You know, when we give NIF tours, we have on the wall what we call the Seven Wonders of NIF, they are technologies that had not been fully developed by the time we started construction of the NIF, but we needed them in order to finish construction.

And so you can imagine that’s kind of a risky way, right, to be construction projects. It’s not already the solution in hand, but I mean, it’s so cool that we were able to make it happen that we were able to develop these new crystals, for example, that have to be grown to this enormous size and do it fast enough in order to outfit NIF.

And we had to develop that in parallel while we were doing construction. And so it’s just a story of all of this crazy innovation, this creative thinking that we had to bring all together and then also have sponsors that were for leaning enough, right. Willing to provide us the resources and provide us the will to make this happen.

And so I think it’s really it’s so cool that it happened here in the Tri-Valley.




And it’s a very American story for me. Right. It’s something like, you know, it’s American innovation that we can make this happen.


That’s amazing. So one of the things that your comments about the sort of the stretch, the stretched nature of every goal of your seven wonders of NIF is that in preparing for talking to you,  I was thinking so much about, okay, what is the laser ignition fusion economy going to look like? What’s that? And I’m not going to let you off the hook on that either. But putting on the Startup Tri-Valley science-based startups hot that I wear, what I’m hearing is an enormous amount of possibility for influencing the local science-based startup economy from simply the innovations that occurred so that you could achieve the goal.

So all the innovations that had to  happen along the way, the things that hadn’t been invented when you were starting and that you knew would need to be invented to get all the way to the point where you are now, it seems to me like that’s a great feeder for the commercialization of all kinds of things.


Yeah, exactly. So, you know, one thing that is interesting about the national labs is we do a lot of fundamental science and technology, R&D development, and then we’re supposed to tech transfer out a lot of these ideas because we don’t we don’t manufacture, we don’t produce, right? That’s not that’s not our job. And so with these seven wonders of NIF, one of them is laser glass production, right?

The NIF is 192 separate lasers, and each one alone is one of the most energetic in the world. And you can imagine if you have 192 lasers, you need 192 sets of optics for each of those lasers, Right? Wow. And each of these lasers is unique because they are huge in size. There’s not – you can’t buy them off the shelf.

Nobody else has a need for lasers like this. Right? So we had to develop everything in-house. And we knew that, you know, none of the conventional production methods of developing this laser glass was fast enough or good enough for us to outfit the entire facility in enough time to finish construction on time. And so [Lawrence] Livermore developed a way of pouring glass 24 hours a day, seven days a week, incredibly high quality figuring out how to like, slice up the glass and polish it and prepare it so that it was good enough for lasers.

So we developed these techniques with partnerships with commercial entities and then we tech transfer. We basically gave the technology to Hoya and shot Glass. U.S. companies. Yes, we bought the glass back from them. And so it was a great way for us to help virgin U.S. industry and then also develop suppliers for our needs for the future. And so that is one of the functions of national labs.

And this embodies that because that’s just one example of many.


That’s such a great example and also such a great example of why we do fundamental science, which is to ask these really hard, really important fundamental questions that mean you’re not only at the boundary, but you’re pushing the boundary. And by pushing the boundary, you wind up having to innovate in all kinds of unexpected places because you are so you’re a step past where everything is.

And I think that’s fantastic.


Yeah. And it’s risky, right? Right. It’s just R&D. You don’t know if it’s going to work or not. So. So you need government help, right? Who’s willing to underwrite that risk. Right. And trust that you can fly the plane as you’re building it.


Exactly. I


Oh, that’s a great story. So looking at kind of coming back to the actual ignition achievement itself, what is the next goal post for your technology?


And so NIF is a one of the forefront facilities for the National Nuclear Security Administration, the NSA. It’s one of the divisions of the Department of Energy. And of course, the work that we do at the NIF is to ensure the safety, security and reliability of our nation’s nuclear stockpile. So what that means is we can generate conditions similar to what we have inside nuclear weapons at a very tiny scale right.

The NIF targets that we shoot are just, you know, they end up about half the diameter of a human hair. So tiny, tiny, tiny. We’re not developing new weapons, but we can generate those conditions and then we can study them and we can use them to feed that data into our simulation codes, the same ones that make sure that the stockpile that we do have in the U.S. stays safe and effective.

And that means we can do all this work in the absence of underground testing. Right. So it is a big piece of our deterrence. And so we’re going to continue to use the NIF to do these types of experiments and make sure that our nation stays safe.

Another and another thing that we are going to do here at [Lawrence] Livermore is to set the foundation for what we call inertial fusion energy.  So the same fusion partners that we generate for stockpile stewardship and form the foundation of a clean energy source. And so we talked about getting more energy out of the plasma. Then we put it right. So you can imagine if we could get a lot more energy out of the plasma than we put in, then that would be enough energy to continue running your laser, continue running your facility feedback, and have enough energy to feed out to the grid.

So that is what a fusion energy power plant might look like. And so we need to keep doing research so that we can get to higher gains instead of just three units out the two in. There’s the potential to get several hundred units of energy out for just a few in. And besides that, there’s many other technologies we would need to develop in order to make a fusion plant actually viable.

So that includes, you know, better laser development, new materials, bringing all the different subsystems of a power plant reactor in, you know, how do you extract the energy, how do you recycle the materials, how do you drop targets? And there is a lot of technology development that we need to do that. [Lawrence] Livermore is starting to pull together now as a thrust for actually our country to push forward because if we can make fusion work, it is a completely clean energy source.

There’s no carbon that we’re emitting, it is essentially limitless, it’s sustainable. We know how to obtain the fuel that we need without damaging the environment. It could be baseload very reliable power. We can generate power plants that are hundreds of megawatts or gigawatt type scale similar to coal power plants of today, and there’s no high level nuclear waste. So it is the ultimate energy source.

Now, there’s still a lot of technology development that we have to do to get to that point. So it’s not going to be easy. This is definitely a task where, you know, we have to partner. [Lawrence] Livermore can’t do it alone, but the vision, the potential wins that we get if we can make this work, are just enormous. And so the U.S. now is excited about fusion energy and starting to invest and grow the program


 As you describe it, I am just imagining a world completely transformed by this energy source. And obviously, as you said, it’s not going to happen tomorrow. But it sounds like this next goal post is really the pivotal one which is getting from the one and a half plus to 100 times. And that is going to be similarly driving innovation in the way that getting to this first the first goal post that you reached in December was




Yes we I mean, now that we’ve gotten to this goal post of ignition, we’ve demonstrated that fusion can work.Right?

And so we are seeing huge excitement from the private sector. There’s been over $6 billion invested into fusion in just the past couple of years. Many of those startups are here in California. You hear, you know, close to the Tri-Valley even. And the government is facilitating a lot of this through public private partnerships, through cost share programs.

And then these private companies are, you know, certainly approaching [Lawrence] Livermore as well to look for partnerships where we can work together, where they can leverage some of our decades of expertise, some of our resources. They’re bringing in new ideas, agility, and it could be quite a fruitful partnership.


So in part in partnering with these companies, can you talk at least at a very high level, how can the companies that were here in the Tri-Valley, I assume you’re you know, from Fremont so not you’re pretty local.

How can you see how some of the companies or maybe inventors or investors in that area work with Lawrence [Lawrence] Livermore to contribute to the kind of laser ignition fusion economy that could be our future.


And so a lot of private companies do reach out to us. They typically just, you know, they contact the lab and, you know, the lab is here to help.

And so, you know, they get directed to me or, you know, one of the other, you know, hundred physicists or or engineers working on the project. And, you know, we’ll discuss what they’re interested in.

There’s any range of component technologies. There is your supply chain, for example, with lasers, the next generation of lasers is not going to look like the NIF.

NIF is what we call flash lamp-pumped glass lasers, new lasers of today are more efficient, more flexible, and can shoot a much higher repetition rate. They would be using diodes. And so there’s a whole supply chain that we need to build up to make sure that we have both the capacity and bring down the cost of these different components in order to turn it into something commercially viable.

And so, you know, companies will often approach us saying we have, you know, this fundamental physics thing that needs to be solved, either an experimental question that needs to be solved, or we’ve got this idea for new lasers that might work. Can you evaluate whether or not it’s actually sensible?

And because the lab is so big, right, we have, you know, not just the experimental background, we not only have the facilities, you know, we have huge supercomputers where we can help simulate some of these ideas. And, you know, we look for those areas that are mutually beneficial because, you know, our scientists, you’ve got to get them excited and interested to do it, too. And then and then we embark on a partnership.



That’s great. Well, I will make sure and put the relevant links to how people can do that in the show notes so that they’re easy to find. So looking at the landscape for what’s going on with inertial fusion energy and the fact there are start ups and there’s investment, what do you see as being the most possible or probable commercial outcome in the relatively near future?

So if you knowing, knowing what you know about what what’s out there, whether it’s an I actually related to that that energy creation itself or maybe more along the lines like what you said of an innovative laser or component or something along the supply chain where you think, yes, like this is probably, you know, the these are probably the areas where you could expect to see something hitting the market place relatively soon.


Yeah. So yeah , fusion is you know, there’s this grand challenge: it’s going to be decades of investment and R&D. And what’s really exciting though is like you point out, a lot of different technology spin outs that we foresee along that path. Certainly with lasers as we develop high energy, more efficient lasers, there’s all kinds of other uses for them.

There is, you know, cargo inspection that you could do with lasers, nondestructive evaluation. You can generate very energetic sources of other particles. So you could have a beam of protons or a beam of neutrons, and you can do all kinds of medical applications with that. And we’re already starting to see some of those spin offs. Another area is really the advancement of A.I., right?

We hear so much about A.I. and how it contributes to all of these different areas. New discovery also vice versa, right? You need to challenge the A.I. by giving it very difficult problems and fusion is definitely bad because there’s so many different variables that you can bring in. It’s this very multimodal, multi fidelity, multi physics problem that you have to get at.

And so to make A.I. better, you have to challenge it. And so some of the techniques that we are developing for our fusion research, we already see are stepping into other areas. That’s amazing. And so the advancement in high performance computing has very much come from these difficult scientific problems that demand more computational power.

And that’s actually what has driven, you know, these large scale computers in certainly in the U.S. and the investment that we put in them is because you know, we figure out that, oh, okay, you know, computers are getting better. Let’s challenge them more or the question gets a little more detailed that we get to ask now.


And that’s why in the U.S., we’ve been continuously investing in these bigger and bigger supercomputers as well. That sounds like great positioning for what is increasingly seeming like an AI driven economy. Well, that’s fantastic. I hadn’t  – that was an unexpected answer. I didn’t see the AI coming in. I should have.


 Okay, yeah, no. So I like it a lot.

A lot of people are worried that AI’s going to put them out of a job. And for me it’s the opposite because no matter what, the development of AI still comes from humans, right? A lot  comes from, you know, challenging the AI and. Right. You know, that’s the job assigned to it. So that’s the job of Silicon Valley. So I’m not worried.


That’s fantastic. So speaking of valleys, I am very curious. So you live around here. You’re from near here. And I’m just curious how has being in the Tri-Valley, do you think contributed to the success of what the team’s been able to do?


I, I think most people that live here, I love the Bay Area, don’t necessarily love the prices of housing, but you know, it’s a very vibrant area.

It’s a very intellectual area. And we are able to recruit really, really great people to come because it’s California. And what often happens with academics or people with high degrees is that the to body problem, Right. Yeah. Yeah. And so it helps to be in this area where there’s so many other opportunities. And so that’s on a personal level.

But it’s also just amazing to have all of these great institutions, these great companies here where we can just reach out and partner. And so, you know, we have a very strong partnership with IBM and Google and Nvidia and video. You know, they develop computer chips, right? The processing units that can actually handle graphics or A.I..

And they partnered with us, [Lawrence] Livermore because they were looking for science problems to apply to figure out like where we should develop our chips next, how do we test them, right? And so that’s a partnership that we have with Nvidia, you know, with the more fundamental research. You know, we constantly work with Berkeley and Stanford and Lawrence Berkeley and Slack, my group, you know, will drive Press Bay to do an experiment, right?

And we’re actually building another new laser at SLAC. And [Lawrence] Livermore will be building a laser for Slack and it will be a forefront capability because we will couple the newest architecture in lasers with their X-ray free electron laser. And so nobody else in the world has that kind of capability. You could do all kinds of cool new science.


And that’s really, really exciting. That is really exciting. Yeah. That’s why you’re building this hybrid tool at SLAC that is just going to unlock all kinds of information that nobody has been able to. So it’s great that the region  and all the connections have been helpful. And you know, for our Tri-Valley residents, like I’m thinking at multiple levels, the students that are here, some like you may be going to school in California starting at Las Positas, maybe transferring to a UC. Could you talk a little bit about how like what what does the future next need and how can they prepare to if they’re excited by this and they want to contribute to this kind of scientific discovery or commercialization, yet be positioned to be the person that brings this to market?


And so Bloomberg actually just did a study and they project that the fusion market will be valued at $40 trillion, 40 trillion. And so you can imagine what that means. Right? And so to build up to that, all the development, the construction and the manufacturing and just the jobs.

And took us a little bit by surprise. We’re like, okay, wow., like we need that. We need to step up our game to prepare the workforce for tomorrow. And it is not just PhD scientists. We just need engineers, we need technicians. We need operators for nuclear power plants. We need public policy.

We need to work with our communities to educate and spread the word about what fusion actually is and the benefits there so that we can actually enable this $40 trillion economy that doesn’t just come about right. You’ve got to set up all the stepping stones to get there and hopefully do it in a way that is equitable and just right.

We don’t want that 40 trillion falling into the hands of the already rich. How do we deploy this new technology to benefit as many communities and folks as possible? And so one of the you know, one of the things we are just starting and we certainly need more help on is this public perception reaching out to our communities and building up the workforce together.

And reaching out to community colleges, like you say, or even before that, and high schools and elementary schools so that we can, you know, continue that that STEM research as there is STEM outreach, grow that STEM outreach so that people see what the potential is, see those opportunities and then prepare prepare the institutions to be able to make use of the workforce when we need it.


 Now, as I hear you talking, I think of that phrase that the portmanteau, the moonshot, and I’m thinking this is almost like a starshot. But we’re going to


I like to say a sunshot.


Yes. So, yeah. So that is amazing. So and I love hearing the communications recognition. I think there’s often a misperception that scientists and engineers undervalue things like policy and communications.

And my experience of that has been that that’s not true. And so I love that you’re saying this on the permanent record, that you say we’re trying.


I’m not saying we’re necessarily successful.


But no, but what you’re saying is that you need it and that you recognize the value. And I think that that the communications piece of it, the education piece of it and the fact that this is something that’s going to be continuously evolving and is going to reach into so many different kinds of interests, talents and expertise, whether it’s apprenticeships based professions or, you know, communications based professions, science, engineering and policy.

That’s such a rich mix and, you know, appeals to such a wide swath of people. I think hopefully you’re right. And that $40 trillion is going to be spread around.

So, you know, I think your answer while I asked about the students, I think it gives some idea of the skills that you might even need now. So for some of our Tri-Valley locals who are inspired by this, what do you look for when you are hiring? Like what kinds of skill sets do people have or seek to develop if they think, Wow, I’d like to be a part of this team?


So, you know, we need the, you know, traditional PhD physicists, you know, plasma physicists. We definitely need that one gap that we do see is systems engineering. We haven’t built new fission nuclear power plants in the US in quite a while, right? And so we don’t have too many nuclear engineering programs in the U.S. and so we need to rebuild that up.

And when I say systems engineering, this is particularly important because you could have me a physicist, you know, thinking come up with, you know, what I think is the best idea ever is going to, you know, generate tons of energy when we, you know, shoot a target. But there’s other restrictions, right, that when you have a full, complicated system, like a power plant, that’s requirements and all the different other subsystems.

So, you know, right now are the targets that we shoot on. The NIF are you know, they’re plastic, you know, made out of plastic and maybe some gold in a power plant. You have other restrictions. Maybe you can’t have plastic because you need to filter it out. Right. It sets requirements on other subsystems. And so we need to come at the problem from an integrated perspective, one that folds in a self-consistent way of thinking through the larger problem.

And we don’t, we don’t have a lot of that. We’re missing a bit of that right now. And so certainly in systems engineering, we need new materials for fusion. And what’s really exciting right now is the fact that we have things like additive manufacturing, advanced manufacturing, 3D printing, where you can print new materials, new structures, you can bring in again, AI to actually do materials discovery.

You can say I need a material that can have these properties and then give it to the computer and, you know, try to sort that out. And so we know we need a lot of, you know, good machine learning, computational expertise as well. And what else do we need? You know, we got to figure out how to do automation.

Automation, because in a power plant, you don’t want human intervention. It’s going to have to mostly run itself. And so maybe that means robots, that means everything is digitized, it goes on its own. And then an important component that is also cyber cybersecurity, of course, right? Because we’re talking about you need you don’t you don’t want the power plant itself to be hacked, but not just that.

If it feeds into a, you know, utility grid. Right. Right. And so you need to make sure all of that is secure and you need to do power management, too. Right. If the sun is shining, maybe you want to be more reliant on solar panels. And then at night, when the sun goes down, you might want to switch over to your fusion power plant.

And then how do you balance all of that out in a way that you know, actually works, right, and make sure we have reliable power when it’s 100 degrees outside and everybody’s running their AC. So those are all things that we need to look ahead and figure out how to build up the workforce that has that skill set right now.


So much opportunity. Absolutely. So for people, for our listeners who are listening to this and thinking, I want to be a part of when you’re hiring, if you’re hiring, where do they go to get more information on what’s available? Yeah, so we have a careers website. It is jobs dot llnl dot gov. There’s always probably a few hundred different postings, not just for NIF and fusion, but you know, across the breadth of things that we do here at the lab.

And we are, we are always, always hiring. So please do have a look and then we have a new Discovery Center behind on the backside of [Lawrence] Livermore. It’s open, I think,  from Monday to Friday. You have to check on the website for the exact time. And so I don’t want to mislead anybody, but it’s targeted for the public and there’s actually a recreation of the NIF chamber.


Oh my gosh.


So that folks can walk in. We have different and diagnostic instruments in there that you can play with models of targets to see. And kids love it. So please bring them by A


And you know, hashtag  summer, hashtag. So it sounds like something fun and educational to do with kids while you’re trying to figure out how to fill their schedule and so they can go to the Discovery Center.

But how else can people stay informed about NIF?


Our website is lasers dot llnl dot gov. That’s where we post you know some of our breakthroughs latest news and yeah check that out. Neat. So anything I didn’t ask that you think I should have or would just like to put out there for our audience. I think where we are right now is just a really exciting time for fusion.

We see them, the industry, the market really growing and there’s a lot of potential. In California alone, we spend $750 million annually on fusion spread across 30 different institutions. So that includes national labs, but universities, private companies. So I’m sure if you just Google fusion, right, it’s not just Lawrence [Lawrence] Livermore that does it. There’s there’s many different institutions and we all need help. I think we all need help.


So there’s lots of opportunity. Yeah, well, thank you so much, Tammy mean for being on the pod. I think I’m going to leave it there. All those valuable links that you mentioned and I’m going to make sure we put in the show notes.  Thank you so much for being on the Startup Tri-Valley podcast.


Thank you for having me.