Nuclear fusion breakthrough offers hope for future generations

This is a historic moment in fusion science.

Scientists have been chasing the dream of producing energy from nuclear fusion for over 70 years.

While fusion – the same reaction that powers the sun – has been performed many times in many different types of devices around the world, all of them require huge amounts of energy to start fusion.

This is the first time they have produces more energy of a fusion reaction they put in.

And if you want to produce energy from fusion, getting there is the most fundamental step.

But does this bring us closer to commercial realization nuclear fusion?

On a theoretical level, yes, it is. Someone must have first shown that you can gain energy by doing fusion on Earth.

But on a practical level, not so much.

First, consider that although the US team got more energy from their reaction chamber than they put into it, the overall energy they had to put into their power-hungry lasers to creating the stellar conditions for the reaction to occur was 100 times what they got out of the merger.

That’s a 99% loss, not a net energy gain.

The other important caveat is that the incredible National Ignition Facility (NIF) at the Laurence Livermore Lab in California, which achieved the result, is not a fusion reactor. It is an experimental tool whose main function is to test atomic weapons for the US government.

The melting event they created lasted about 100 trillionths of a second and produced enough energy to boil about seven kettles. A huge amount of energy considering the timescales – but far from the energy source of the future.

Building a machine means mining a fusion for days or months, not nanoseconds. And then capture that energy somehow to convert it into electricity.

And it’s a very, very tough scientific and technical challenge.

Not the only game in town

Arguably, the NIF does not bring us closer to that.

But fortunately for fusion science, and for humanity, which will one day enjoy nearly limitless energy with hardly any waste, it’s not the only game in town.

There are several state-funded fusion projects, a huge international collaboration called ITER in France, and more than 30 small-scale commercial fusion projects.

Almost all are designed with a path to a power reactor in mind.

But it’s also important to say that neither of them are very close yet. The most common approach: Using magnets to confine charged fusion plasma in a spherical or doughnut-shaped reactor is the clearest path to success.

Some privately funded approaches, such as the UK’s leading company, Tokomak Energy, aim to be deliberately small, so that they can experiment with new magnetic materials and technologies.

“The smaller you can make a reactor, the more cost-effective it will be,” says Dr. Greg Brittles, its lead magnet engineer.

“In the development phase, that means we can get there faster. We can fail fast. We can learn fast. We can build things and learn.

“And that’s going to get us into the merger as quickly as possible, which is what everyone needs,” he says.

The company’s plan is to extract electricity from a pilot commercial reactor by the 2030s.

Harness the power of the sun

But other experts doubt these claims. Some of the problems with building a commercial-scale reactor grow exponentially with size, says fusion scientist Dr. Richard Pitts.

Maybe he would, because he’s one of the main scientists behind ITER, the world’s largest fusion experiment.

While smaller startups may have the latest technology, he argues, they simply don’t have the financial backing to solve the big physics and engineering problems that fusion constantly poses.

“They are very far from the scale needed to generate fusion power from their devices,” says Dr. Pitts.

“To do that, you have to be on the scale of the ITER plant. And when you get to those scales, life gets a whole lot more complicated.”

One thing is certain, fusion is unlikely to come online fast enough, or at least on a sufficient scale, to solve humanity’s current challenge: finding a new source of energy to replace fossil fuels.

We will have to pursue existing technologies for this.

But today’s breakthrough offers real hope that future generations can look forward to harnessing the power of the sun here on Earth. With all the benefits it can bring.

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