Ashland resident built tools that led to fusion power breakthrough

Richard Sawicki discusses a portion of the National Ignition Facility, which he helped design and, earlier this month, recorded a historic fusion reaction. Ashland.news photo by Ryan Pfeil
December 22, 2022

Ashland resident helped design specialized equipment that performed this month’s historic fusion ignition reaction in California

By Ryan Pfeil, Ashland.news

Ashland resident Richard Sawicki is well-acquainted with parts of California’s National Ignition Facility, the site of this month’s widely-reported fusion ignition reaction that produced more energy than the amount within a laser beam used to start it.

As the deputy associate program leader for NIF special equipment, and later as chief engineer, Sawicki helped get that laser designed and built, along with the vast array of tubes, spherical test chamber, and various lights and mirrors.

“I was really responsible for leading the design effort,” Sawicki says.

Thirteen years after his retirement, December’s fusion news is “monumental,” Sawicki says, but it’s just one step. The laser and other facility equipment require power sources, too, he says, which needs to be factored in. Diode technology could drastically reduce the energy needed for the laser, he adds, and if the energy output could also be increased, “then we have a story.”

“Physicists believe we’re just at the threshold now,” Sawicki says. “That, in fact, we can increase that (energy) number, the output of the target, to much, much greater. And that is what the National Ignition Facility is working very hard on and will continue to do experiments on in the future.”

It’s an ongoing effort toward abundant, clean energy Sawicki was a part of.

“I’m just really proud of having contributed,” he says. “It’s hope for the future.”

The engineer

Sawicki was born in Boston, Massachusetts, and raised just west of the city in Wellesley. He attended Dartmouth College, graduating in 1971 with a bachelor’s degree in engineering.

Then he drove across the U.S. to Los Angeles, where many engineers were seeking work. Sawicki found enough to get by, also finding time to get his master’s degree at UCLA. A couple years after his arrival in L.A., he graduated with a masters of science degree in machine design.

Following graduation, he got a job at Rockwell International as a drafter in the laboratory and test group. His office was a drawing board, his mind and his pencils designing different systems tests.

Sawicki left Rockwell after about a year, then traveled back east where he got a job with American Science & Engineering, which had just gotten a contract to build the Einstein Observatory, an X-ray telescope. His first task was to do a structural analysis of the telescope to make sure it could withstand the acceleration and vibration that came with the rocket launch needed to get the apparatus into orbit. He also did a thermal analysis of the telescope’s mirrors and became an analyst because of the project.

Sawicki moved back to Southern California in the mid-’70s, working for Ford Aerospace, then Hughes Aircraft. In about 1980, Sawicki’s roommate, Armando, announced he had gotten a job at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in Livermore, east of San Francisco and Oakland.

The facility had been active for about 30 years, initially built in 1952 “at the height of the Cold War to meet national security needs by advancing nuclear weapons science and technology,” according to the LLNL website.

Sawicki applied there, too, and ended up in the nuclear explosives engineering division, where he did structural analysis on different weapons systems.

Lasers

Two years into his time at LLNL, Sawicki heard about a job in the laser division. He got it, starting his work in 1983. A project he was an analyst on involved heating unpurified uranium until it turned into a vapor, then shining finely-tuned lasers through the vapor to ionize the uranium atoms. The process is called atomic vapor laser isotope separation, a more efficient method of uranium purification than one that uses centrifuges, Sawicki says.

Vibration was a key part of Sawicki’s analysis. Consider all the sources producing vibrational waves that can affect hardware: a building’s HVAC system, vacuum pumps, vehicles and trains that pass. Sawicki had to factor all of it in, with additional attention paid to thermal analysis.

“How are those structures wiggling back and forth that are holding the mirrors that are directing the lasers into that chamber?” Sawicki said. “I absolutely loved it. That was just me.”

He also received an education in laser light, in understanding how it worked and how it could be utilized.

National Ignition Facility

It was knowledge he would take with him to the National Ignition Facility, a portion of LLNL that, when construction concluded, would be the size of three football fields.

Sawicki was initially hired for research and development, working on schedules to lay out all the work necessary to prepare for the facility’s construction and coordinate it. By the mid-’90s, he’d become the deputy associate program leader for NIF special equipment.

A key piece that equipment is the test chamber, a sphere. To try and achieve fusion, scientists place a small cylinder — called a hohlraum —  that houses a peppercorn-sized sphere containing deuterium and tritium — hydrogen isotopes — inside.

Target on an inserter inside test chamber. Submitted photo

Then they unleash the laser. It starts off as a small beam, divided up and injected into 192 tubes.

Along the way, slabs of specialized glass and networks of flash lamps amplify the beams’ strength. Mirrors direct the light. Crystals convert its color from red to blue, and into the chamber it goes.

NIF target area. Submitted photo

“What we want to do is take this laser light and cause energy, to, as perfectly as possible, collide into that sphere,” Sawicki says.

This is achieved by the laser light heating the inside of the hohlraum housing the sphere. Lined with gold, that cylinder converts the laser light into X-rays. Do this with enough precision, and the peppercorn-sized capsule’s surface blows off, Sawicki says. The remaining deuterium and tritium material get compressed, their temperatures rising to levels hotter than a star.

“The pressure and the temperature, those two things, are so high, that it causes the deuterium and tritium atoms to fuse together,” Sawicki says. “And when they fuse together, they release energy.”

Go boldly

Sawicki spent the last couple years at the facility as its chief engineer. He retired in 2009 shortly after construction wrapped, capping a career at Lawrence Livermore that spanned nearly 30 years.

But he wasn’t done yet. Shortly after his retirement, Starfleet came into his life (or, more precisely, Paramount Pictures). NIF officials got in touch with Sawicki to tell him that the film crew working on “Star Trek: Into Darkness,” the sequel to 2009’s “Star Trek,” wanted to film inside NIF. They sought Sawicki out to help coordinate the efforts.

Starship Enterprise crew hard at work in NIF target building. Submitted photo

“I went down there,” Sawicki says. “And in come truck after truck after truck. They filled up our parking lot. So many people.”

A key shooting site was the test chamber, which served on screen as the USS Enterprise’s engine room, according to the LLNL website. Sawicki got to watch some of the filmmaking, a lifelong, real-life engineer sharing the facility with fictional portrayals.

Fictional or not, it’s hard not to imagine an eventual future that has ships like the Enterprise in it after NIF’s fusion ignition announcement. No matter the endpoint, it’s a frontier Sawicki helped chart.    

“Everybody is just cheering. I can’t believe how much dancing must be going on down there at the lab, at the NIF facility,” Sawicki says. “I’m just really proud of having contributed to something that is so historic.” 

“This facility is just a great, great world-class example of how great engineering and amazing physics can be combined together to create a very, very important step for mankind.”

Email Ashland.news web editor Ryan Pfeil at ryan_pfeil@hotmail.com.

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