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Researchers have injected more energy into test reactors for fusion than was produced for many years. Due to this failure, nuclear fission—rather than fusion—has become the preferred method for producing infinite, carbon-free energy despite its health and safety dangers. However, this time, scientists achieved “Net Energy Gain” through nuclear fusion, taking a step closer to achieving zero carbon emission power.
The US Department of Energy reported a significant advance in nuclear fusion technology on December 5, 2022. For the first time, researchers at the National Ignition Facility (NIF) at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California successfully produced a “net energy gain” utilizing nuclear fusion.
But what is the purpose of this experiment? And is the effort worth it? What does it entail for energy technologies? This article discusses all the possibilities.
Source: Conversion of laser energy into x-rays inside the hohlraum at LLNL federal research facility in Livermore, California, U.S.
Deuterium and tritium are combined in a pea-sized capsule as part of a $3.5 billion experiment conducted in California. A 192-beam laser is then fired, heating and compressing the fuel to replicate the conditions found within a star. The capsule explodes because of the extreme heat and pressure, which also causes the hydrogen atoms to fuse and release energy. Consequently, scientists achieved “Net Energy Gain” through nuclear fusion.
Even though the test had been performed countless times, this was the first instance where the fuel remained hot enough, dense enough, and spherical enough to ignite. 2 megajoules were put in, and 3 megajoules were created, which was more energy than the lasers had depleted.
Nuclear fusion has a much greater energy potential than any known energy source. It can produce roughly 4 million times as much energy than chemical processes like burning coal, oil, or gas and four times as much energy as nuclear fission, which is the current method utilized in all nuclear power plants worldwide.
Many governments, particularly in Europe, consider fusion, discovered in the early 20th century, to be the source of future energy.
During fusion, two atoms are combined into one by colliding their nuclei together. Sometimes a high-energy neutron that was initially utilized to attach the neutron to the nucleus is thrown out by the recently created atom to form a stable nucleus.
Researchers hope to produce the power needed to light our houses from this surplus energy. However, this can be done through nuclear fission also. Fast-moving neutrons are already being used in nuclear fission power plants to generate commercially feasible energy. Why don’t we then continue with it?
In fission, a heavy atom is divided into two or more pieces instead of fusing two light atoms. Fission reactors are used in every nuclear power plant to produce energy.
Nuclear fusion and nuclear fission produce fuel that is radioactively different from one another. Deuterium, one of the two primary materials thought to be most effective for fusion energy, is not radioactive, whereas tritium is. Its radiation is, however, very feeble and transient.
Source: Fission vs. Fusion
Due to serious concerns of hazardous radiation, exacerbated by incidents like the Chornobyl tragedy, the Fukushima meltdown, and the partial meltdown at Three Mile Island in the US, it is not a common fuel source in the majority of countries. However, in France, nuclear fusion provides 70% of the country’s energy needs.
But is it truly a “greener” option than what we are practising now, and how far along are we in using this technology to convert electricity?
Nuclear energy’s supporters assert that it is also efficient and may significantly lessen our reliance on fossil fuels. Nuclear power is considered a carbon-free substitute for fossil fuels since it does not produce greenhouse gases during production; its main by-product is helium, an inert, non-toxic gas.
Additionally, deuterium is prevalent in saltwater, and researchers are working to create tritium on-site using lithium.
The global basic energy demands cannot be satisfied by renewable energy sources like wind and solar. If it works, nuclear fusion might produce much more.
While that may seem ideal, nothing could be farther from the truth. Technological advancement in plasma physics is required for fusion to become a reality.
The main difficulty is mimicking what occurs in the sun’s core without the pressure brought on by the gravity of the star’s massive mass. Gases must be heated to extraordinarily high temperatures of around 150 million degrees Celsius, roughly 10 times the sun’s core, to produce fusion on Earth.
The gases now transform into plasma, over a million times lighter than our atmosphere. Its constituent protons, neutrons, and electrons are all kept apart.
Researchers studying fusion have discovered that the most straightforward approach to providing an environment for fusion to occur and produce energy is by heating a combination of deuterium and tritium.
The plasma utilized for fusion experimentation is contained at ITER by a device called a tokamak, which employs a high magnetic field.
When plasma particles clash quickly under these harsh circumstances, heat is produced. The heating effect, however, strangely diminishes as the temperature climbs even higher as the collision rate increases. This “plasma switch-off” is the primary obstacle that fusion studies worldwide must overcome.
The plasma “switching off” in dire circumstances also refers to the response ceasing if there would be any instabilities. As a result, scientists claim that fusion is safer than fission.
The US discovery comes as the globe struggles with high energy costs and faces an immediate necessity to transition away from the usage of fossil fuels to prevent global average temperatures from rising alarmingly high.
Even though through this breakthrough, scientists achieved “Net Energy Gain” through nuclear fusion, the maximum electricity that researchers have produced via fusion is 59 megajoules of energy spread across five seconds. That is roughly two months’ worth of use for a tiny light bulb. How to create this fuel on a broader scale is the problem that researchers are now trying to solve. Nuclear fusion technology will eventually advance over time.
In an effort to lower emissions and triumph in the international competition for next-generation clean technologies, the Biden administration is investing close to $370 billion in new low-carbon energy subsidies under the Inflation Reduction Act.
Investing in nuclear fusion may not be able to meet today’s energy needs and won’t contribute to immediate emission reductions, but it may be able to meet energy needs in the second half of the century.