The Recent Nuclear Fusion Breakthrough
A California nuclear fusion research facility had a breakthrough in December 2022, marking a huge step forward. Learn about nuclear fusion, how it works, and what this breakthrough means.
The National Ignition Facility (NIF), located in California, had a breakthrough on December 5th, 2022 that marks a critical step forward for nuclear fusion development.
“Scientists have been trying to make such a breakthrough for 60 years and finally the day has come,” said E. Craig Dukes, an expert in experimental high-energy physics in his recent interview.
Before we get into the breakthrough and what it means, let’s go over what nuclear fusion is and how it works.
How Nuclear Fusion Works
Nuclear fusion is a process of combining two atomic nuclei to form a single, heavier one. When this happens, the reaction releases energy.
This reaction takes place naturally in the sun and all the stars you see in the sky. In order to fuse together, these nuclei must collide with each other at extremely high temperatures - around 10 million degree Celsius.
This high temperature is required for these nuclei to overcome their mutual electrical repulsion.
Electric repulsion is a type of electrical interaction that occurs between two charged particles when they have the same electrical charge.
When two charged particles are close to each other and they have the same charge (either both positive or both negative), they will experience an electric repulsive force that pushes them away from each other.
Once they overcome this repulsion, they combine releasing a massive amount of energy, which is the main reason why scientists worldwide are working on it.
The key to understanding how fusion generates energy is Einstein's world-renowned equation:
E = mc2
The equation states that the energy (E) of a body is equal to its mass (m) multiplied by the speed of light (c) squared. The speed of light is a very large number, around 300,000,000 meters per second, so even a small amount of mass is equal to a very large amount of energy.
The inclusion of c2 in the equation is important because it shows that the relationship between mass and energy is not linear.
In other words, increasing the mass of an object does not increase its energy by the same amount. Instead, the increase in energy is much greater than the increase in mass.
Where nuclear fusion helps combine two atom nuclei, nuclear fission is the exact opposite. It’s a process in which the nucleus of an atom is split into two or more smaller, more stable nuclei.
This process releases a large amount of energy, which can be harnessed to generate electricity in a nuclear power plant.
Nuclear Fusion vs. Nuclear Fission
Nuclear fission is comparatively easier to achieve than nuclear fusion because it requires less energy and temperatures to split an atom’s nucleus. But apart from this, there are several differences between fusion and fission:
Fuel: Nuclear fusion reactions use light elements such as hydrogen as fuel, while nuclear fission reactions use heavier elements such as uranium or plutonium.
Byproducts: Nuclear fusion produces much less radioactive waste than nuclear fission. The byproducts of nuclear fusion reactions are typically stable, while those of nuclear fission reactions are highly radioactive and require careful handling and disposal.
Safety: Nuclear fusion reactions are generally considered to be safer than nuclear fission reactions, as they do not produce the same kind of dangerous radioactive waste.
Practicality: While nuclear fusion has the potential to provide a virtually limitless and clean energy source, it’s still a relatively new field of research and has not yet been fully developed for practical use. In contrast, nuclear fission has been used for decades to generate electricity in nuclear power plants.
About the Fusion Experiment Conducted at the National Ignition Facility
A team of scientists conducted an experiment wherein 192 laser beams were converged on a small gold cylinder consisting of a tiny bead of fuel composed of two hydrogen isotopes: Deuterium and Tritium.
This cylinder vaporized in seconds, emitting X-rays that bombarded the fuel pellet, that turned the fuel’s outer diamond layer into plasma that led to fuel compression to a point where its nuclei fused and released tremendous amounts of energy.
But here’s the key to this experiment resulting in a breakthrough - the energy release was about 50% more than the energy imparted by the experiment’s lasers. The laser energy heated the fuel pellet to 150 million degree Celsius and compressed it with a pressure that’s 2X compared to the sun’s center.
The laser beams put in 2.05 megajoules of energy and the fusion reaction released 3.15 megajoules. This 3.15 megajoules of energy can be captured and used to generate electricity.
What Does the Breakthrough Mean for Nuclear Fusion & The World?
If nuclear fusion can be replicated on earth at an industrial scale, it can be the source of unlimited clean, safe, and affordable energy to meet the ever increasing needs of our planet.
One Step Closer to Commercializing Nuclear Fusion
With this breakthrough, the world is one step closer to commercializing nuclear fusion, but it's a long road ahead.
The recent experiment surely released more energy than the energy required to combine the two atom nuclei. But to carry out nuclear fusion you must power the reactor used to combine these atom nuclei.
In this case, the power required by the reactor was 300 megajoules. Thus, the 3 megajoules energy released after combining the nuclei was just 1% of the total energy used for the nuclear fusion process.
This means we are several steps away from the day where nuclear fusion might replace fission to resolve the clean energy issue.
There is no doubt about the progress in the nuclear fusion world. It's happening fast, but it will take a long time to generate affordable electricity with nuclear fusion.
More Funding for Fusion is Needed
Although last year wasn’t great for nuclear fusion funding, with this breakthrough at the end of the year, investors are expected to invest in nuclear fusion heavily.
Past 10 Years of Nuclear Fusion Funding
Many private investors have been investing in nuclear fusion for a long time, but the private investment in fusion energy has accelerated in recent years. By the end of 2020, the investment stood at $1.5 billion, and it almost tripled in 2021 ($4.44 billion).
The reason behind this investment growth is a combination of traditional tech venture funding and strategic investments by incumbent energy companies like Eni’s and Eqinor’s.
Next-Gen Nuclear Fission Is Still a Much More Viable Option Investment in the Near Term
It’s true that fusion could generate substantially more energy than fission, but it’s still a moonshot.
The manufacturing of equipment required for the fusion process is extremely expensive and the power required to make it a feasible energy source is immense.
It would take a long time to commercialize nuclear fusion, and with the current climate change crisis, it would be too late. It still requires a lot of technological development to become feasible.
That’s why it's important to continue investing in nuclear fission in the meantime as it is also a clean source of energy that can replace fossil fuels to generate electricity.
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