Nuclear Fusion Energy Breakthrough: Video and How to Watch

Scientists studying fusion energy at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California announced on Tuesday that they have taken a major step in reproducing the power of the sun in the laboratory.

For decades, scientists have said that fusion, the nuclear reaction that makes stars shine, could provide an abundant future source of energy.

The result announced Tuesday is the first fusion reaction in a laboratory environment that actually produced more energy than was needed to start the reaction.

“The fact that we were able to extract more energy than we put in provides proof of existence that this is possible,” said Mark Herrmann, director of the physics and weapons design program at Livermore’s lab. . “It can be built and upgraded and upgraded and could potentially be a power source in the future.”

From an environmental point of view, fusion has always had a strong appeal. In the sun and stars, fusion continually combines hydrogen atoms into helium, producing the sunlight and heat that bathes the planets.

In experimental reactors and laser labs on Earth, fusion lives up to its reputation as a very clean source of energy, free of the pollution and greenhouse gases produced by burning fossil fuels and hazardous waste. long-lived radioactive substances created by today’s nuclear power plants. , which use the breakdown of uranium to produce energy.

There was still a nagging caveat, however. In all the efforts scientists have made to control the uncontrollable power of fusion, their experiments have consumed more energy than the fusion reactions generated.

That changed on the morning of Dec. 5, just over a week ago, when 192 giant lasers from the lab’s National Ignition Facility blasted away a small cylinder the size of a pencil eraser containing a frozen core of hydrogen locked in diamond.

The laser beams penetrated the top and bottom of the cylinder, vaporizing it. This generated an interior X-ray assault that compresses a BB-sized fuel pellet of deuterium and tritium, the heaviest forms of hydrogen.

In a brief instant lasting less than 100 trillionths of a second, 2.05 megajoules of energy – roughly the equivalent of a pound of TNT – bombarded the pellet with hydrogen. A stream of neutron particles – the product of fusion – that carried the energy equivalent of about 1.5 pounds of TNT, or an energy gain of about 1.5.

This crossed the threshold that laser fusion scientists call ignition, the dividing line where the energy generated by the fusion is equal to the energy of the incoming lasers that initiate the reaction.

The successful experiment finally achieves the ignition target promised when construction of the National Ignition Facility began in 1997. When operations began in 2009, however, the facility generated virtually no merger, an embarrassing disappointment after a $3.5 billion investment from the federal government. government.

In 2014, Livermore scientists eventually reported some success, but the energy produced was miniscule – the equivalent of what a 60-watt light bulb consumes in five minutes. Progress over the following years was light and modest.

Then, in August of last year, the facility produced a much larger burst of energy – 70% more than the energy of laser light.

Dr Herrmann said the researchers then carried out a series of experiments to better understand August’s surprising success, and they worked to increase the energy of the lasers by almost 10% and improve the design of the targets. hydrogen.

The first 2.05 megajoule laser shot was made in September, and this first test produced 1.2 megajoules of fusion energy. Additionally, the analysis showed that the spherical hydrogen pellet was not pressed evenly and some of the hydrogen was essentially squirting out the side and not reaching melting temperatures.

The scientists made a few tweaks that they think would work better.

“The prediction before the shot was that it could be doubled,” Dr. Herrmann said. “In fact, it grew a little more than that.”

The main purpose of the National Ignition Facility is to conduct experiments to help the United States maintain its nuclear weapons. By performing these nuclear reactions in a lab on a less destructive scale, the scientists aim to replace the data they used to gather from the detonations of underground nuclear bombs, which the United States shut down in 1992.

The facility’s larger fusion output will produce more data “that will allow us to maintain confidence in our nuclear deterrent without the need for further underground testing,” Dr Herrmann said. “It just extends our capabilities there, allows us to work with less extrapolation and with more confidence.”

Riccardo Betti, chief scientist at the University of Rochester’s Laser Energy Laboratory, who was not involved in this particular Livermore experiment, said: “That’s the point, to demonstrate that you can light a thermonuclear fuel in the laboratory for the first time. time.”

“And it was done,” he added. “So it’s a great result.”

The implications of the experiment for energy production are much more tentative.

“Getting from there to on-grid energy is a very long and difficult road,” Dr Betti said.

Fusion would essentially be an emissions-free energy source, and it would help reduce the need for coal and natural gas-burning power plants, which pump billions of tons of planet-warming carbon dioxide into the atmosphere each year. .

But fusion is unlikely to become widely available and practical for decades, if ever.

Most climate scientists and policymakers argue that to achieve this goal of limiting warming to 2 degrees Celsius, or the even more ambitious goal of 1.5 degrees Celsius warming, the world must achieve net zero emissions by 2050.

Henry Fountain contributed report.

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