Don't Get Too Excited About This Nuclear Fusion Breakthrough

Don’t Get Too Excited About This Nuclear Fusion Breakthrough

That's exactly what nuclear fusion looks like, probably.

That’s exactly what nuclear fusion looks like, probably.
Photo: sacred halls (Shutterstock)

This is big, big news that scientists recently able to perform a nuclear fusion reaction that releases more energy than it consumes. It is also true that this type of reaction could potentially be a useful source of energy in the future. Or, as physicists like to say, useful nuclear fusion was “in 10 years” for about 50 years. Read on to learn more about why scientists are excited, but also why our homes will likely be powered by the same power plants for a long time to come.

Is nuclear fusion the same as nuclear energy?

Nuclear power plants and nuclear bombs use a fission reaction, which is different from fusion reaction which has been in the news recently. Fission occurswhen is it an atom is separated. Typically, you start with a uranium or plutonium atom, stick a neutron into it, and break that atom into many pieces that can then break into even more pieces. Fission produces energy in the form of heat and nuclear power plants use this heat to boil or vaporize water. There are no emissions from nuclear power, but there is the annoying problem of nuclear waste – those smaller atoms that are still radioactive.

Nuclear fusion is the reverse reaction: Ssmaller atoms are combined into a larger one. This is an interesting possibility because it does not produce carbon emissions Where current problems with radioactive waste.

So could fusion be a zero-waste, zero-emission energy source?

This is the dream. We know that fusion reactions can create energy, because that’s what the sun does all day. It fuses hydrogen atoms to become helium (helium atoms being twice as large as hydrogen). Fusion reactions are what create heat and sunlight. Fusion happens so easily on the sun due to extreme temperatures and gravity; making it happen on Earth is much more difficult.

Fortunately, hydrogen is easy to find, at least; It’s the most common element in the universe. Instead of coal that was mined from the earth, a fusion reactor could use deuterium (heavy hydrogen) from abundant sources like water as the main fuel. Like CNN reports, a glass of tap water contains enough deuterium to theoretically power a home for a year. You also need tritium, a rarer form of hydrogen, but finding fuel isn’t the main problem.

The tricky part is that it takes a lot of energy for a fusion reaction to occur. Scientists have successfully fused atoms before, but before this week, always the reaction used more power than it produced, which is the opposite of what you need a power source to do.

What happened during the breakthrough of the National Ignition Facility?

For the first time, scientists have succeeded in initiating a fusion reaction that created more energy than it consumed. Kind of. Big warning on that.

Technically, the reaction created more energy than the laser energy who fed it. But if you compare the result of the reaction to the total electricity bill of the installation, it’s a different story: The lasers delivered 2.05 megajoules of energy to the reaction, and the reaction produced 3.15 megajoules as output. But these lasers themselves consume a lot of electricity, rather 300 megajoules.

The whole reaction setup wasn’t cheap or easy to set up either. In addition to hydrogen, gold, uranium and diamonds were also involved, and it took researchers months to determine the exact shape the diamond portion should have.

Scaling this process to the size of a power plant is unlikely to be possible any time soon. Scientific journal reports than another type of reactor, called tokamak, is considered a better bet for practical power generation, but the main facility in France which is supposed to be work on tokamak fusion is “well over budget, long overdue and won’t break even until the late 2030s at the earliest”. So we’ll be waiting a while longer for our space-age power source.

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