Nuclear fusion. He’s an integral part of the time-traveling DeLorean in Back to the futureand it allows Doctor Octopus to harness “the power of the sun” in 2004 Spiderman 2 (a movie I’ve watched so many times on VHS that the villain’s feisty origin story was literally seared into my eight-year-old brain). Now, however, the potentially revolutionary power source seems ready to step out of the realm of fiction and into reality.
Earlier this week, US scientists announced a new breakthrough in the development of nuclear fusion. For the first time, they obtained a net energy gain from a fusion reaction – in other words, the reaction produced more energy than it absorbed – signaling that the future of sustainable energy production could lie in the same reaction that “powers” the sun.
Sadly (though unsurprisingly), we are a long way from harnessing the power of a “second sun” to keep the lights of our dying planet burning. Many scientists believe that working fusion power plants are still decades away – well beyond the timeline we need to stick to if we are to avoid the worst effects of the climate crisis. This despite the fact that Joe Biden has set a target of “a commercial fusion reactor within 10 years”.
Below, we outline the new fusion breakthrough, how it could one day help pull us back from the brink of environmental devastation, and whether Joe Biden’s plan to get there before 2033 is actually viable. The President of the United States wouldn’t lie to us… would he?
WHAT IS NUCLEAR FUSION?
Ok, so conventional nuclear power plants work by nuclear fission, a process that generates energy by splitting heavy atoms like uranium. Basically, nuclear fusion does the opposite: light elements, such as hydrogen, are fused together via a thermonuclear reaction that releases excess energy. It is the same process that causes the sun to produce heat and light.
SO… SCIENTISTS WANT TO CREATE A “SECOND SUN”?
Kind of. Scientists at The National Ignition Facility (NIF) at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California has discovered how to artificially recreate the thermonuclear reaction. It’s a complex process involving lasers that heat a small cylinder of gold to over three million degrees Celsius. Inside this cylinder is a diamond-encased fuel pellet. By heating this fuel, the NIF team managed to release 3.15 megajoules of energy using 2.05 megajoules, a net gain of just over one megajoule.
It’s not a lot of energy (just enough to boil a kettle, apparently) and it only lasted a tiny fraction of a second, but it proves that it’s possible to generate energy using laser fusion, a result that scientists have been working on for decades. Essentially, fusion proponents believe this means we could use the same reaction that allows the sun to produce heat and light to meet our own energy needs.
Why is this such an exciting prospect? Because there are no associated carbon emissions or long-term radioactive waste, one cup of fuel could theoretically power an entire home for hundreds of years, and it could offer a constant flow of energy. , unlike today’s renewables.
IS THE CLIMATE CRISIS RESOLVED, THEN?
Unfortunately, no, it’s not that easy. The terms of the Paris Agreement suggest that emissions must be reduced by 45% by 2030 and reach net zero by 2050 to limit global temperature increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. Many scientists believe that fusion power plants are still decades away. Dr Michael Bluck, director of the Center for Nuclear Engineering at Imperial College London, recounts the Guardian that 50 years is an optimistic timeframe for commercial use, adding, “There are huge hurdles to overcome.”
That being said, US Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm said Tuesday that Joe Biden has a “10-year vision” for the technology and wants a commercial fusion reactor to be operational within ten years. Announcing the new breakthrough, she said, “It shows it can be done.”
10 YEARS IS A LITTLE OPTIMISTIC…
It does. Who would have imagined that a politician could overpromise and underdeliver? Well, practically everyone – even the director of the lab who conducted the successful experiment says that the White House timeline is too optimistic and that transferring the technology from a lab to a real powerhouse will probably take several decades.
On the other hand, this time frame could be considerably shortened by a wave of investment in fusion technology, which will only be reinforced by the revelation that a net energy gain is indeed possible. Already, the Biden administration has pledged nearly $370 billion to shift away from fossil fuels as part of August. Inflation Reduction Act. Meanwhile, the UK is giving the green light to new coal mines. Love it for us!
SO IS THE NEW FUSION BREAKTHROUGH REALLY A CAUSE FOR CELEBRATION?
Despite the unclear timelines and the general pessimism of many credible scientists, it must be recognized that the successful use of nuclear fusion to produce energy is a remarkable feat. Since the 1950s, researchers have been trying to figure out how to harness the same reactions that ignite the big, hot ball at the center of the solar system, and now they’ve gone absolutely crazy.
In a video about the breakthrough, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory itself says, “Fusion ignition is one of the greatest scientific challenges ever undertaken by mankind.
Now it’s “just” about taking what they’ve learned in a controlled experimental setting and figuring out how to replicate the reaction in the real world, on a large scale. Currently, the NIF can apparently run the fusion reaction about ten times a week. It will take many more reactions – as in many, many times per second – to power the Earth and pull us away from the brink of environmental collapse. For now though, at least scientists can boil a cup of tea while they think about it.
#Scientists #building #sun #save #dying #planet