There’s an old joke among scientists: fusion power is 50 years away and always will be. However, that timeframe might get a bit shorter soon enough.
The U.S. Department of Energy is expected to announce on Tuesday that its scientists at the National Ignition Facility at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California have achieved a “breakthrough” in fusion power, marking an important milestone on the path to creating a clean and sustainable energy. Although the importance of this depends on the person you are talking to.
First, a quick and dirty physics lesson: fusion power is a method of generating electricity by smashing (or fusing) atoms together, releasing massive amounts of energy in the process. This reaction happens constantly on stars like the sun, which fuses 500 tons of hydrogen atoms every second. If we could replicate this reaction on Earth, we could have a virtually limitless source of clean energy.
The target chamber of the National Ignition Facility where nearly 200 laser beams are focused on a gold capsule containing deuterium and tritium.
Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory
But that’s easier said than done. For decades, fusion scientists have attempted to create reactions by essentially shooting high-powered laser beams at hydrogen atoms. However, they struggled to achieve a phenomenon called “ignition,” which is a break-even point when a fusion reactor produces more energy than it consumes.
Researchers have come close in the past – NIF was capable of producing 70% of the energy needed to start a fusion reaction in 2021. The lab could now be one step closer after new experiments led to a net energy gain, meaning it extracted more energy from the fusion reaction than was needed to trigger it, according to The Financial Times.
But wait, isn’t that the same as ignition? Not enough. Ignition requires the nuclear reaction to be self-sustaining, meaning it creates a chain of reactions that create other reactions and so on. When this happens, things start to really cooking (just make sure the arms of the octopus robot you’re using for the experiment aren’t damaged in the process).
“You don’t have to keep throwing matches into a fire to keep it burning,” said Arturo Dominguez, a plasma physicist at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory who was not involved in the experiment, at the Daily Beast. “The heat of the fire itself will sustain it as long as you have enough fuel. It’s the ignition.
FT reported that the latest experiment used 2.1 megajoules of energy to produce 2.5 megajoules, or 120% more than was needed to create it. However, the data is currently being verified. “Our analysis is still ongoing so we are unable to provide details or confirmation this time,” a spokesperson for LLNL told The Daily Beast.
If the alleged breakthrough turns out to be true, then it would be the first time that researchers have been able to create more energy than they put into the fusion reactions. “We never got this energy gain. We never got more energy than the energy you put into it,” Dominguez explained. “So that would be revolutionary.”
The door to fusion energy may have just been opened
But we are still very far from being able to integrate fusion into our energy infrastructures. For one thing, the NIF experiment used a program called inertial confinement fusion, which involves zapping a small amount of hydrogen plasma with nearly 200 of the world’s largest lasers. This creates a series of rapid explosions, heating the reactor to 150 million degrees Celsius, about 10 times hotter than the center of the sun.
Although very sci-fi, energy production occurs in nanoseconds, which isn’t quite the self-sustaining reaction we’d get from ignition. The energy he created was tiny too. In fact, a scientist said CNN that the recent NIF reaction has created just enough energy to “boil 10 kettles of water”. That’s not enough to power a house, let alone entire nations.
So, despite the immense hype surrounding the merger announcement, that doesn’t mean we’re far from reaching the ‘holy grail’ of clean energy – and, in fact, we’re still a long way off. of the merger a reality.
However, that doesn’t mean it’s not cause for celebration, especially for all the scientists and researchers who have been working on net energy gain for so long. Their efforts have become more popular as nations begin to recognize the game-changing potential of fusion energy. As a result, countries like the United States and China have invested billions in researching this technology in recent years.
Now they finally have something to show.
“This [experiment] doesn’t mean fusion power is right around the corner,” Dominguez said. “But what that means is that there is a physical basis for the work that is done in fusion. And we have now proven in an experiment that you can get more energy than the energy that comes in.
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