Nuclear fusion has finally achieved a breakthrough that could soon allow the production of massive or even unlimited amounts of cheap clean energy. For the first time, a nuclear fusion reaction has been created that produced more energy than the was absorbed by the fuel in making it. Scientists are enthusiastic that this most recent milestone could solve the world’s energy crisis.
An experiment at the National Ignition Facility of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory is the first time in history that a human-created nuclear fusion reaction has been proven to create more energy than the amount absorbed into the reaction itself. The experiment required the world’s powerful laser, a massive device the size of three football fields, to fire 192 beams at a single tiny capsule of hydrogen fuel. This was necessary in order to compress the hydrogen fuel and heat it to a temperature of 5.9 million degrees Fahrenheit (or 3.3 million Kelvin).
The astronomically high degree of heat causes the fuel to implode, a reaction which releases energy that is usable.
Nuclear fusion is the opposite of nuclear fission, which powers nuclear power plants and weapons like the atomic bomb. While fission splits a heavy nucleus—the center an atom—to release massive energy, fusion combines the nuclei of two light atoms into one heavy nucleus, releasing energy in the process. Fusion of light elements is the same process that powers the Sun and every other star in the universe, in a process called nucleosynthesis that also produces almost every element.
The massive breakthough has been achieved in nuclear fusion at a time of crisis for world energy production. Fossil fuel prices are high worldwide, scientists have recently confirmed theories on man-made climate change, and the disaster in Fukushima, Japan has reinforced the dangers of traditional nuclear power. Nuclear fusion, however, is relatively inexpensive and has a minimal environmental impact, producing a small amount of waste that stops being dangerous much more quickly than the waste from nuclear fission. Also, nuclear fusion is extremely safe, as it does not require a critical mass, and therefore it would be impossible for fusion to cause a nuclear meltdown.
Nuclear fusion also has advantages in terms of security, since it doesn’t make plutonium or uranium that can be used in nuclear weapons, and terrorists destroying a nuclear fusion plant would not be creating an environmental disaster.
The latest breakthrough does not take the technology all the way to viability, however. While the fuel produced more energy than it took in, the energy of the lasers themselves was still higher than the amount produced, due to inefficiencies in the system by which the lasers delivered their energy.
Nevertheless, this major milestone represents a crucial leap after over half a century of failed attempts to achieve efficient controlled fusion. Back in 2009, officials at the NIF announced a goal to produce nuclear fusion with a net gain of energy by September 2012. However, there were unexpected technical problems that that caused experiments to fall short of that deadline. Eventually, the lab switched its focus to its original purpose, which was weapons research.
The fusion project continued, however, and the massive success it achieved in today’s breakthrough bodes well for the future of nuclear fusion as a source of cheap clean energy.
Written By: Jeremy Forbing