U.S. Scientists Achieve a Breakthrough in Nuclear Fusion. What Does That Mean?

nuclear fusion machinery

Machinery used to create the powerful lasers, like these pre-amplifiers, currently requires a lot more energy than the lasers themselves produce. Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory

There are a number of pieces of the fusion puzzle that scientists have been steadily improving for decades to produce this result, and further work can make this process more efficient.

First, lasers were just invented in 1960. When the U.S. government completed construction of the National Ignition Facility in 2009, it was the most powerful laser facility in the world, able to deliver 1 million joules of energy to a target.

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The 2 million joules it produces today is 50 times more energetic than the next most powerful laser on Earth. More powerful lasers and less energy-intensive ways to produce those powerful lasers could greatly improve the overall efficiency of the system.

Fusion conditions are very challenging to sustain and any small imperfection in the capsule or fuel can increase the energy requirement and decrease efficiency. Scientists have made a lot of progress to more efficiently transfer energy from the laser to the canister and the X-ray radiation from the canister to the fuel capsule, but currently only about 10 to 30 percent of the total laser energy is transferred to the canister to the fuel.

Finally, while one part of the fuel — deuterium — is naturally abundant in sea water, tritium is much rarer. Fusion itself actually produces tritium, so researchers are hoping to develop ways of harvesting this tritium directly.

In the meantime, there are other methods available to produce the needed fuel.

These and other scientific, technological and engineering hurdles will need to be overcome before fusion will produce electricity for your home. Work will also need to be done to bring the cost of a fusion power plant well down from the $3.5 billion of the National Ignition Facility. These steps will require significant investment from both the federal government and private industry.

It’s worth noting that there is a global race around fusion, with many other labs around the world pursuing different techniques. But with the new result from the National Ignition Facility, the world has, for the first time, seen evidence that the dream of fusion is achievable.

Carolyn Kuranz is an experimental plasma physicist an associate professor of nuclear engineering at the University of Michigan. She receives funding from the National Nuclear Security Administration and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. She serves on a review board for Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, and is member of the Fusion Energy Science Advisory Committee.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. You can find the original article here.

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