Fusion ignition achieved ushering a new era of clean energy

Fusion ignition achieved ushering a new era of clean energy

By Mariam Jomha

Nuclear fusion is a process in which atomic nuclei fuse together, which results in the significant release of energy. This process powers the sun and other stars, and scientists have been working for decades to develop ways to harness this energy for use on Earth. This Tuesday marked a major scientific breakthrough from the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California (LLNL) in the form of fusion ignition.

Researchers from LLNL’s National Ignition Facility (NIF) announced Tuesday that they had achieved the first controlled fusion experiment ever to achieve a net energy gain where more energy was produced from fusion than the laser energy used to drive it.

What does this mean for the future of clean energy?

The potential benefits of nuclear fusion are numerous. It is a clean and virtually limitless source of energy, as it produces little to no greenhouse gasses or other pollutants. Additionally, the fuel for fusion reactions, which is typically hydrogen, is abundant and widely available.

This breakthrough opens the door to advancements in national defense and clean “emissions-free” power. 

“This is a landmark achievement for the researchers and staff at the NIF who have dedicated their careers to seeing fusion ignition become a reality, and this milestone will undoubtedly spark even more discovery,” said U.S. Secretary of Energy Jennifer M. Granholm. “This milestone moves us one significant step closer to the possibility of zero-carbon abundant fusion energy powering our society,″ adds Granholm.

How fusion ignition works:

This is a massive scientific advancement, as it has been decades in the making. LLNL scientists first hypothesized that lasers could be used to induce fusion in a controlled laboratory setting as early as the 1960s. This revolutionary idea became inertial confinement fusion which involves using high-energy lasers or particle beams to compress and heat a small fuel pellet, causing fusion to occur. This method has been successful in producing fusion reactions, but it has not yet been demonstrated at a scale that would be practical for generating electricity. 

After nearly 70 years of research and development in various areas such as lasers, optics, computer modeling, simulations, and experimental design, LLNL scientists built a series of laser systems, leading up to the creation of NIF, the world’s largest and most energetic laser system. The NIF is the size of three U.S. football fields and uses powerful laser beams to create temperatures and pressures similar to those in stars and planets.

On Dec. 5, the NIF used 192 giant lasers to blast a small cylinder of frozen hydrogen encased in a diamond. The reaction produced a flurry of X-rays and hit a fuel pellet of deuterium and tritium with 2.05 megajoules of energy. This happened in less than 100 trillionths of a second and in turn, led to a flow of neutron particles and 3.15 megajoules of energy output. This 1.1-megajoule energy gain was enough to meet the criteria for fusion ignition.

What now?

Overall, while the technical challenges of nuclear fusion remain significant, the potential benefits of this clean and virtually limitless source of energy make it an area of intense research and development. Building on the success of this breakthrough, nuclear fusion could provide a major source of clean, reliable energy for the world in the future.

“I think it’s moving into the foreground and probably, with concerted effort and investment, a few decades of research on the underlying technologies could put us in a position to build a power plant,” says Kimberly S. Budil, the director of LLNS.

The team must now work on designing a fusion reactor to use the new approach, and the fuel pellet must be tweaked to get more of the laser energy directed toward compressing atoms in order to burn more efficiently. Despite these challenges, the breakthrough has provided justification for an aggressive push to develop and deploy fusion energy in hopes of impacting climate change.

Featured image source.

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