Nuclear fusion: How long until this groundbreaking discovery can power your home


For the first time in history, US scientists at the National Ignition Facility at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California have successfully produced a nuclear fusion reaction resulting in a net increase in energy, a source familiar with the project confirmed to CNN.

The US Department of Energy is expected to officially announce the breakthrough on Tuesday.

The results of the experiment will be a major step forward in the decades-long quest to unleash an infinite source of clean energy that could help end dependence on fossil fuels. Researchers for decades have been trying to recreate nuclear fusion reaction – renewable energy powering the sun.

Here’s what you need to know about this new form of nuclear power that could eventually turn on your lights.

Nuclear fusion is a man-made process that produces energy similar to the energy that powers the sun. Nuclear fusion occurs when two or more atoms are fused into a larger atom, a process that generates a huge amount of energy in the form of heat.

Scientists around the world have been studying nuclear fusion for decades, hopes to regenerate it with a new source of infinite, carbon-free energy – without the nuclear waste generated by current nuclear reactors. Fusion projects mainly use the elements deuterium and tritium – both isotopes of hydrogen.

Deuterium from a cup of water, with a little tritium added, can power a house for a year. Tritium is rarer and harder to obtain, although it can be synthesized.

“Unlike coal, you only need a small amount of hydrogen and it is the most abundant thing found in the universe,” said Julio Friedmann, chief scientist at Carbon Direct and former chief engineer for energy technology at Lawrence Livermore, told CNN. “Hydrogen is found in water, so this energy generator is extremely clean and unlimited.”

When people think about nuclear power, cooling towers and mushroom clouds probably come to mind. But merging is completely different.

While fusion fuses two or more atoms together, fission It’s the opposite; it is the process of splitting a larger atom into two or more smaller atoms. Nuclear fission is type of energy powering nuclear reactors around the world today. Like fusion, the heat generated from splitting atoms is also used to generate energy.

Nuclear is a zero-emission energy source, according to Department of Energy. But it produces volatile radioactive waste that must be stored safely and poses safety risks. Nuclear crises, although rare, have occurred throughout history with devastating and severe consequences such as at the Fukushima and Chernobyl reactors.

Nuclear fusion does not carry the same safety risks, and the materials used to power it have a much shorter half-life than fission.

There are two main ways to induce nuclear fusion, but both have the same result. Fusing two atoms generates an enormous amount of heat, holding the key to generating energy. That heat can be used to warm water, create steam, and spin turbines to generate energy — the same way nuclear fission produces energy.

The big challenge of harnessing fusion energy is maintaining it long enough so it can power grids and heating systems around the globe. The successful US breakthrough is a big deal, but it’s still on a much smaller scale than what is needed to generate enough energy to run a power plant, let alone tens of thousands of homes. electric machine.

This illustration provided by the National Ignition Facility at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory depicts a target bullet inside a hohlraum capsule with laser beams passing through holes at the ends.  The beams compress and heat the target to the conditions necessary for nuclear fusion to occur.  (Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory via AP)

“It’s about the amount of water it takes to boil 10 kettles of water,” said Jeremy Chittenden, co-director of the Center for Inertial Fusion Research at Imperial College in London. “To turn it into a power plant, we need to generate more energy – we need significantly more energy.”

This is the first time that scientists have successfully created a nuclear fusion reaction that results in net energy gain, instead of breaking even as previous experiments have done.

While there are many steps to go until this becomes commercially viable, it is essential for scientists to demonstrate that they can generate more energy than initially possible. Otherwise, it doesn’t make much sense for it to be developed.

“This is important because from an energy perspective, it can’t be a source of energy if you don’t get more energy out than you put in,” Friedmann told CNN. “Previous breakthroughs have been important, but it’s not the same as generating energy that could one day be used on a larger scale.”

Several fusion projects in the United States, United Kingdom, and Europe. France is home to the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor, in which 35 countries are collaborating – includes major members China, the United States, the European Union, Russia, India, Japan and South Korea.

In the US, much of the work is happening at the National Ignition Facility at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, in a building the size of three football fields.

The entrance to the west gate of the US Department of Energy's Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in Livermore, California, US, on Monday, December 12, 2022. Researchers at the lab near San Francisco have could create a fusion reaction that produces more energy than it consumes, according to a person familiar with the study who asked to remain anonymous to discuss the results that have not been fully disclosed to the public.  Photographer: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images

National Ignition Facility Project generates energy from nuclear fusion by what is known as “fusion inertial fusion”. In fact, US scientists fire hydrogen-fueled projectiles at an array of nearly 200 lasers, essentially creating a series of extremely fast repeating explosions at a rate of 50 times per second. The energy obtained from the neutrons and alpha particles is extracted as heat.

In England and ITER project In France, scientists are working with giant donut-shaped machines equipped with giant magnets called tokamaks to try to produce similar results. After fuel is injected into the tokamak, its magnets are turned on and the internal temperature is increased exponentially to create plasma.

Plasma needs to reach at least 150 million degrees Celsius, 10 times hotter than the core of the sun. The neutrons then exit the plasma, strike a “blanket” lining the walls of the tokamak, and transfer their kinetic energy as heat.

Scientists and experts now need to figure out how to generate more energy from nuclear fusion on a much larger scale.

At the same time, they need to find a way to ultimately reduce the cost of nuclear fusion so that it can be used commercially.

“Right now, we are spending huge amounts of time and money on every test we do,” says Chittenden. “We need to bring costs down to a huge factor.”

Scientists will also need to harvest the energy produced by the fusion and transfer it to the grid as electricity. It will be years – and possibly decades – before fusion can generate unlimited amounts of clean energy, and scientists are racing against time to combat climate change.

“This is not going to make a meaningful contribution to climate mitigation over the next 20-30 years,” says Friedmann. “This is the difference between lighting a match and building a gas turbine.”


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