Milestone in Clean Nuclear Fusion Energy Achieved at U.S. Laboratory

Nuclear
Fusion
View from the bottom of the National Ignition Facility (NIF) target chamber at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in northern California. Courtesy of Lawrence Livermore National Security (Wikimedia CC0)

Scientists at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California recently achieved a monumental breakthrough in nuclear fusion energy, revealing their findings in a press conference on Tuesday. The researchers say they successfully conducted an experiment in nuclear fusion in which they recorded a net-gain of energy for the first time ever on Dec. 5.

How Fusion Works

The experiment involved focusing 192 lasers at hydrogen atoms, fusing them into denser helium atoms, which causes an ignition, or release of energy. Net-gains in fusion energy had so far proved elusive to researchers, largely due to how difficult the process is to control with the high temperatures and pressure required to perform fusion.

Fusion
A rotating crane hoisted the target chamber of the National Ignition Facility and gently moved it to the Target Bay. Courtesy of Lawrence Livermore National Security (Wikimedia CC0)

The experiment involved inflicting a can of hydrogen fuel with temperatures of over 180 million degrees Fahrenheit, hotter than at the center of the sun. Then compressing it with a force of over 100 billion times the pressure of earth’s atmosphere. The sum of the energy from the laser inputs was 2.05 megajoules. The output from the fusion process was recorded at 3.15 megajoules, a gain of 1.1.

“Ignition allows us to replicate for the first time certain conditions that are found only in the stars and the sun,″ said Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm. “This milestone moves us one significant step closer to the possibility of zero-carbon abundant fusion energy powering our society.″

An Achievement For Our Future

Some consider this breakthrough to be one of the biggest scientific achievements of the 21st century. The use of nuclear fusion for energy or defense was thought to be 60 or more years away. Now, the technology could be widely available for use in just a few short decades.

“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,” said the director of Lawrence Livermore, Kimberly Budil.

Current nuclear power plants use fission rather than fusion to create energy, which creates nuclear waste as a biproduct in the process. The fusion process creates no waste, and therefore is seen as the “Holy Grail” of energy production. In other words, it is the key to a future of limitless, carbon-free, waste-free energy.

 

Written by Seth Herlinger.

 

Sources:

AP News: Fusion breakthrough is a milestone for climate, clean energy

BBC News: Breakthrough in nuclear fusion energy announced

Reuters: U.S. lab hits fusion milestone raising hopes for clean power

 

Top, featured, and inset image by Lawrence Livermore National Security, courtesy of Wikimedia – Creative Commons License

 

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