With the announcement of an expected “major breakthrough”, nuclear fusion harnesses the power of the stars with unlimited clean energy and no hazardous waste.
The US Department of Energy plans to announce a ‘major scientific breakthrough’ at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory – one of many sites around the world where researchers are trying to develop the possibility of harnessing the energy of nuclear fusion .
The announcement expected on Tuesday moves the scientific community because nuclear fusion is considered by some to be the energy of the future, especially since it produces no greenhouse gases, leaves little waste and poses no risk. nuclear accident.
It also has the potential to one day accelerate the planet’s shift to fossil fuels, which are major contributors to climate change, but has long struggled with daunting challenges.
Here’s a look at what nuclear fusion is and some of the challenges to making it the cheap, carbon-free source of energy that scientists think it can be:
What is nuclear fusion?
Look up and it’s happening right above you – nuclear fusion reactions are powering the sun and other stars.
The reaction occurs when two light nuclei fuse to form a single heavier nucleus. Because the total mass of this single nucleus is less than the mass of the original two nuclei, the remaining mass is the energy that is released in the process.
In the case of the sun, its intense heat – millions of degrees Celsius – and the pressure exerted by its gravity allow atoms that would otherwise repel each other to fuse together.
“We need to find ways to insulate this extremely hot material from anything that might cool it. This is the problem of containment, ”said Erik Lefebvre, project manager at the Atomic Energy Commission.
Scientists have long understood how nuclear fusion works and attempted to replicate the process on Earth as early as the 1930s. Current efforts focus on fusing a pair of hydrogen isotopes – deuterium and tritium. This particular combination releases “much more energy than most fusion reactions” and requires less heat to do so.
What value would that have?
Daniel Kammen, a professor of energy and society at the University of California, Berkeley, said nuclear fusion offers the possibility of “essentially unlimited” fuel if the technology can be made commercially viable. The necessary elements are available in seawater.
It is also a process that does not produce the radioactive waste of nuclear fission – the technique currently used in nuclear power plants.
“Controlling the energy source of stars is the greatest technological challenge humanity has ever undertaken,” tweeted physicist Arthur Turrell, author of The Star Builders.
How close is it to reality?
Lefebvre warned “there is still a very long way to go” before “a demonstration on a commercially viable industrial scale”.
He said such a project would take another 20 or 30 years to complete.
The scientific community hopes that this technology could be a game-changer for global energy production.
“It’s a totally decarbonized source of energy, generating very little waste and inherently extremely safe,” Lefebvre said, adding that fusion could be “a future solution to global energy problems.”
How do scientists try to do this?
One of the ways scientists have tried to recreate nuclear fusion involves something called a tokamak – a doughnut-shaped vacuum chamber that uses powerful magnets to turn fuel into a superheated plasma – between 150 million and 300 million degrees Celsius – where melting can occur.
Livermore’s lab uses a different technique, with researchers firing a 192-beam laser at a small capsule filled with deuterium-tritium fuel. The lab reported that an August 2021 test produced 1.35 megajoules of fusion energy, or about 70% of the energy fired at the target.
The lab said several subsequent experiments showed declining results, but the researchers say they have identified ways to improve the quality of the fuel capsule and the symmetry of the lasers.
“The most critical feature of moving fusion from theory to commercial reality is getting more energy out of it,” Kammen said.
To achieve this, the researchers must first increase the efficiency of the lasers and reproduce the experiment more frequently.
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