Breakthrough in nuclear fusion could mean ‘almost limitless energy’

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Researchers are said to have made a breakthrough in the quest for an “almost limitless, safe and clean” source of energy: they got more energy from a nuclear fusion reaction than they put in.

Nuclear fusion involves crushing light elements such as hydrogen to form heavier elements, releasing a huge burst of energy. The approach, which gives rise to heat and light from the sun and other stars, has been hailed as having huge potential as a sustainable low-carbon energy source.

However, since nuclear fusion research began in the 1950s, researchers have been unable to demonstrate a positive energy gain, a condition known as ignition.

Now, it seems, the Rubicon has been crossed.

According to a report by the Financial Times, which has not yet been confirmed by the National Ignition Facility (NIF) at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California which is behind the work, the researchers managed to release 2.5 MJ of energy after using only 2.1 MJ. to heat fuel with lasers.

Dr Robbie Scott of the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) Central Laser Facility (CLF) Plasma Physics Group, which contributed to the research, described the results as a “momentous achievement”.

“Fusion has the potential to provide an almost limitless, safe and clean carbon-free baseload energy source,” he said. “This seminal result from the National Ignition Facility is the first laboratory demonstration of the ‘energy gain’ of fusion – where more fusion energy is produced than input by the laser beams. The magnitude of the breakthrough for the laser fusion research cannot be overstated.

“The experiment unambiguously demonstrates that the physics of Laser Fusion work,” he added. “In order to turn the NIF result into power generation, there is still a lot of work to do, but it is a key step on the way.”

Related: The race to give nuclear fusion a role in the climate emergency

Professor Jeremy Chittenden, professor of plasma physics at Imperial College London, agrees. “If what has been reported is true and more energy has been released than was used to produce the plasma, that’s a real watershed moment which is extremely exciting,” he said.

“It proves that the long-sought goal, the ‘holy grail’ of fusion, can indeed be achieved.”

But experts stressed that while the results would be an important proof of principle, the technology is far from a mainstay of the energy landscape. For starters, 0.4 MJ equals about 0.1 kWh, or about enough energy to boil a kettle.

“To turn fusion into an energy source, we will need to further increase the energy gain,” Chittenden said. “We’ll also have to find a way to reproduce the same effect much more frequently and more cheaply before we can realistically turn this into a powerhouse.”

Professor Justin Wark, professor of physics at the University of Oxford, added that while, in principle, the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory could produce such a result about once a day, a fusion power plant would have to do it 10 times a day. second.

And there’s another point: the reported positive energy gain ignores the 500 MJ of energy that was injected into the lasers themselves.

However, Chittenden stressed that the NIF was designed for scientific demonstration, not as a power plant. “The efficiency of converting electrical energy into laser energy was not a factor in its design,” he said.

“Anyone working in fusion would be quick to point out that there is still a long way to go between demonstrating energy gain and wall plug efficiency where energy from a reactor at fusion exceeds the electrical power input needed to operate the reactor,” he added.

“Experiments at NIF demonstrate the scientific process of ignition and how it leads to high fusion energy gain, but to make it a power plant we need to develop simpler methods to achieve those conditions, which will need to be more efficient and above all cheaper for inertial fusion to be carried out as a source of fusion energy.

The latest results, if true, surpass the facility’s last big breakthrough which came last year when it was announced that the team had reached 70% of the laser energy put into the experiment released. in the form of nuclear energy.

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