Making history over the weekend, U.S. scientists for the first time ever produced a nuclear fusion reaction which resulted in a net energy gain.
Scientists at the National Ignition Facility at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California were behind the successful fusion on Sunday according to the Financial Times.
For years now, nuclear energy has been seen as a potential source of clean energy that could end the world’s dependence on fossil fuels.
An official announcement is still yet to come from the U.S. Department of Energy over the details of the research, but is expected to occur Tuesday afternoon.
“There is going to be great pride that this is something that happened in the United States,” said David Edelman, who leads policy and global affairs at TAE, a private fusion energy company. “This is a very important milestone on the road toward fusion energy.”
REMEMBER THIS DAY. NUCLEAR FUSION BREAKTHROUGH. We have harnessed the power to create nuclear fusion with lasers eliminating the need for fossil fuels, and without any radioactive waste. This breakthrough creates unlimited clean renewable energy. It eliminates the need for oil.
— Wendell Pierce (@WendellPierce) December 13, 2022
What is nuclear fusion and why is it so important?
Nuclear fusion occurs when two atoms are mashed together to produce one larger one. The fusion of atoms results in the production of a mass amount of energy, which is extracted from neutrons and alpha particles as heat; the key ingredient to producing energy.
Nuclear fusion powers the sun and other enormous stars in space. For the sun to be able to produce energy, nuclei collide with each other at extremely high temperatures, around ten million degrees Celsius (18,000,032 degrees Fahrenheit).
Scientists at the National Ignition Facility use a process called “thermonuclear inertial fusion” where pellets that contain hydrogen fuel are fired into a formation of 200 lasers. The result is a series of rapid and repeated explosions at a rate of 50 times per second.
The heat produced by the reaction is what in turn produces energy.
According to the International Atomic Energy Agency, “fusion could generate four times more energy per kilogram of fuel than fission (used in power plants) and nearly four million times more energy than burning oil and coal.”
Alongside producing more energy than both polluting and clean energy alternatives, it does not emit carbon dioxide or other greenhouse gasses in the air the way fossil fuel products do.
On top of that, there is no risk of nuclear meltdowns or nuclear waste leaking into the atmosphere, which are some of the most common arguments against nuclear energy made from fission (when the atoms are split).
With all these factors considered, nuclear fusion appears as the perfect candidate for long-term clean energy solutions.
Breakthroughs in nuclear fusion all over the globe
Alongside the U.S., numerous other countries across the globe are working toward producing nuclear fusion.
In the United Kingdom, scientists are attempting to produce nuclear fusion using a tokamak, a huge donut-shaped machine with magnets.
To generate energy using the tokamak, scientists inject a small amount of fuel into the machine, which activates the magnets to create a plasma. The plasma then needs to reach at least 150 million degrees Celsius (270,000,032 degrees Fahrenheit), the temperature required to make particles fuse together.
After the particles fuse together, the neutrons complete the final step of the reaction by hitting a “blanket” lining the wall of the tokamak, their kinetic energy generating heat to fuel energy production.
Last year, scientists near Oxford produced a record-breaking energy reaction of five seconds — small yet a remarkable breakthrough in the field of nuclear fusion.
A number of member nations in the European Union as well China, India, Japan, Russia and South Korea are also funding the ITER project, the world’s largest international fusion facility, in southern France.
Beginning in 2020, the project’s goal is to demonstrate the potential of nuclear energy and to support the future of electricity-producing demonstration fusion power plants called DEMO’s.
ITER is expected to start experiments in the second half of the decade and have full-power experiments by 2036. However, over the past 12 months, the facility has faced enormous setbacks including a disturbance of critical supplies in Russia after the Ukraine-Russia War and the death of the project’s long-term chief Bernard Bigot.
The new ITER Director-General Pietro Barabaschi warned members the project now faces “extensive” problems including the need for more time and money.
However, some claim the setbacks allow billionaires like Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos and Peter Thiel, who are pursuing fusion privately, to catch up with production.
Regardless of groundbreaking accomplishments, all of the nuclear fusion that is being produced today is still too small scale for what is needed to power entire cities and cars.
The key problem with today’s nuclear fusion experiments is being able to sustain fusion energy long enough to power big electric grids across the globe.
According to Jeremy Chittenden, co-director of the Centre for Inertial Fusion Studies at Imperial College in London, the next step for nuclear fusion is to ramp up experiments, while bringing the cost down.
“At the moment we’re spending a huge amount of time and money for every experiment we do,” said Chittenden. “We need to bring the cost down by a huge factor.”
As nuclear fusion continues to evolve, one thing is certain: the latest breakthroughs in nuclear fusion across the globe are starting to clear a path to clean energy and a realistic alternative to fossil fuels.
Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed here by the authors are their own, not those of Impakter.com — In the Featured Photo: The sun is the original user of nuclear fusion on September 6, 2020. Source: Mike McBey, Flickr.