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[OP-ED] Fusion Ignition Breakthrough: Designing the Ultimate Clean Energy Source

[OP-ED] Fusion Ignition Breakthrough: Designing the Ultimate Clean Energy Source
Image courtesy of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory)

American scientists from the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory’s National Ignition Facility in California (LLNL) successfully produced a nuclear fusion reaction with positive net energy. Software company PTC has indirectly contributed to the development of this experimental facility that houses 192 ultra-powerful lasers with its CREO and Windchill.

By Jim Heppelmann, President and CEO, PTC

The recent nuclear fusion developments at the National Ignition Facility (NIF) at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) represent one of the most exciting and important scientific breakthroughs that I can recall in my lifetime.

Our planet has an undeniable need for energy, and we are all witnessing the negative environmental and geo-political consequences of trying to satisfy that need. What the world ultimately requires is a larger
supply of energy that is ubiquitous, clean, and sustainable.

Energy that is freely available, does not create the greenhouse gases that drive climate change and does not enrich and thus empower corrupt authoritarian governments.

Our friends at LLNL and the United States Department of Energy (DOE) may have just unlocked the ultimate technology that will change the nature of energy – nuclear fusion. The NIF’s recent breakthrough, a fusion reaction that creates more energy than it consumes – without the nasty environmental side effects of fission or hydrocarbons – shows us the path toward satisfying society’s true energy requirements.


It is said that someday, a small amount of hydrogen found in nature can be processed to power a very large city for extended periods of time. While this breakthrough is exciting, it will take substantial time and effort to commercialize the fusion approach to achieve its potential. Count me as a believer in terms of what this means for society’s collective future – much like the light bulb, the automobile, the airplane, or the computer that preceded it, it will prove to be another game changer for mankind!

My appreciation for this achievement is in part catalyzed by the enabling role that PTC software has played in this project. The NIF is essentially a massive machine, a precision-engineered “system of systems” that generates and directs 192 massive lasers onto a pencil-eraser-sized area that heats to millions of degrees to ignite nuclear fusion. To give you a sense of the size of the NIF, the LLNL team describes it as the size of a sports stadium, capable of holding three football fields.

PTC has been supporting the NIF engineering team at LLNL as a close partner for over 25 years. When I joined PTC back in 1998, the NIF had already selected our Pro/ENGINEER CAD software, which of course is now known as Creo. A few years later, the NIF team added Windchill to the solution as their data management needs grew and grew. Over the years, PTC product teams have had many collaborative discussions with the LLNL and broader DOE representatives, who have always been challenging PTC and pushing the envelope for what our software must do to enable their highly advanced projects.

There has always been a punch list of items for PTC to work on to advance our software for the NIF team, but at many points along the way I observed that the punch list had evolved since the previous meeting, demonstrating that we had been making significant progress addressing their priorities and moving on to the next level of advancement. Much of our lightweight 3D visualization technology, for example, was advanced in collaboration with the NIF team because it is the only practical way to share this volume of data across the large team and supply chain involved in the project. Because it made our products more capable, every customer around the world has benefitted from PTC’s collaboration with the NIF team!

Today, two decades later, the massive NIF machine that generated fusion ignition is all modeled in Creo and Windchill. Everything, they say, “except the walls and the bathrooms.” To our knowledge, the NIF is the largest Creo and Windchill assembly ever created, and probably the largest assembly ever modeled in 3D CAD. The NIF assembly contains more than 3.5 million components, comprised of around 750,000 unique part designs. Talk about a large assembly!

You can imagine the detailed specifications required in this highly engineered design project to bring something like the NIF to life. The NIF is an incredible feat of engineering, not only for LLNL, but for PTC as well. While I am a true optimist regarding the role fusion energy will play in addressing climate change in the future, this will take time and it does entail risk, so we cannot lose focus on the other green energy approaches and projects that are happening around the world today.

At PTC, we continue to work closely with customers who are advancing solar, wind, electrification, and other green energy strategies. I have named Catherine Kniker as our Chief Strategy and Sustainability Officer, and she is actively coordinating with teams across our company that are working on software capabilities that help our customers establish sustainability practices, baseline their carbon footprint, and target and account for their improvements going forward. Our goal is to enable customers to make their existing products more sustainable, and of course to enable them to design and manufacture new products that drive the clean energy revolution, ranging from solar panels to the National Ignition Facility.

On behalf of the entire PTC company, I offer my sincerest congratulations to the LLNL team for their hard work in achieving this exciting breakthrough, and I thank them for such a long, trustful, and mutually impactful relationship!