November 9, 2023
NMC Alum Reflects on Fun, Fame, Nuclear Fusion
After weeks of rain, the sun has returned to the Northern Michigan sky; its light and warmth bringing us out of our autumn funk. Sitting approximately 93 million miles away from Earth, the sun is not actually “on fire”. Rather, its power comes from a process within its core: nuclear fusion. Incredibly, the sun isn’t the only star in our solar system. In a laboratory in California, NMC alumna Dr. Annie Kritcher creates miniature stars—a scientific breakthrough decades in the making.
A Traverse City native, Kritcher recalls fond memories of Up North life—family visits to Petoskey, bonfires on the beach, and hanging out at the Old Mission Peninsula Lighthouse. Kritcher attended NMC from 2001 to 2003 (she was named a Distinguished Alumnus in June 2022). She credits NMC instructors Jim Coughlin (now retired) and Mike Franklin for fostering a love of engineering and physics. Kritcher remembers her NMC engineering classes in particular: “Those classes stuck out to me because we did extra-curricular stuff too,” she said. “We did some collaborations with the bigger universities like Michigan Tech…that was a really special time with my engineering friends that I started to connect with.”
After transferring to the University of Michigan, Kritcher was considering going into radiology before her friends convinced her to do an internship at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California. “I saw the big laser,” she said, referring to the giant laser at the lab’s National Ignition Facility (NIF). “You get to fire the biggest laser in the world at targets and blow them up, and also do something really cool for humanity at the same time!” She completed her B.S. in Nuclear Engineering and returned to California to earn an M.S. and Ph.D at the University of California—
Berkeley. In 2009, Kritcher joined the staff at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, realizing her dream of firing huge lasers.
At the NIF, Kritcher and her team study nuclear fusion—combining two lighter atoms to make one heavier one, a process which releases an enormous amount of energy. The experiment is complex: dozens of lasers are fired at a tiny cylinder, creating an “x-ray oven” that heats the BB-sized carbon sphere inside. A series of explosions and implosions squeezes the fuel inside the sphere, leading to a self-sustaining fusion reaction—what physicists call “ignition”. For a brief moment, the environment within the cylinder is the hottest place in our solar system, with a temperature more extreme than the center of our sun!
Everything must be just right for the experiment to work, Kritcher said. Her job as a physicist designer is to optimize the materials and conditions. It’s no simple task: even the smallest imperfection can lead to failure. It’s a challenge Kritcher is up for. “I like to build things,” she said, whether it’s a wine cellar to fit under her staircase at home or a precisely engineered nuclear fuel capsule.
Fusion ignition eluded scientists for nearly 60 years. To achieve ignition, a controlled fusion reaction must create more energy than what is put in. Although this happens constantly inside our sun, it is enormously difficult to accomplish on Earth. The environment required for success is so extreme that many scientists thought it a lost cause…until Dec. 5, 2022, when Dr. Kritcher and her team at NIF succeeded.
It was an explosive scientific accomplishment, proudly announced by the U.S. Department of Energy and covered by media outlets around the globe. Kritcher found herself catapulted to fame: this past April, Time Magazine included her in its “100 Most Influential People of 2023” alongside Beyonce, President Biden, and Neil Gaiman. This was a tremendous surprise for Kritcher—“I thought I was just doing a regular interview,” she said of her meeting with Time’s reporter.
Kritcher—and her colleagues at NIF—have good reason to be proud. The success of their experiment opens up new possibilities for clean energy. Unlike nuclear fission (the process used in today’s nuclear power plants), fusion produces far less radioactive waste. Fusion reactions are also much easier to stop, eliminating the risk of meltdown. This technology is still decades away, Kritcher said, but she’s encouraged by the eruption of interest and funding over the past year. (While it would be cool to see nuclear fusion as a form of spaceship propulsion, Kritcher doesn’t think it’s feasible.
Sorry, sci-fi fans!)
This remarkable feat shines light on another milestone: the achievements of women
in STEM fields. It can feel isolating as a woman in a male-dominated field, especially
when you have a family, Kritcher noted. She is encouraged to see more diversity in the
field. “Physics has no gender,” she said.
Despite her rise to stardom, Kritcher seems very down-to-Earth. When she’s not creating tiny stars in the lab, Kritcher enjoys exploring the outdoors with her husband and three young children. She confides that after 20 years of living in the Golden State she has begun to miss the snow in Northern Michigan. During her visits home, Kritcher cherishes the relaxed Midwestern vibes, journeying up Old Mission Peninsula to patronize her favorite TC restaurant, the Jolly Pumpkin.
This August, the NIF achieved fusion for a second time, breaking their previous record for energy yield. An incredible victory made possible by science superstars, including one from our very own backyard.