Is the dream of limitless, clean energy finally coming true? Historic ‘nuclear fusion’ breakthrough EXPLAINED
Nuclear fusion breakthrough is an enormous milestone for mankind. The sun, which has been burning for over 4.6 billion years, runs on fusion reactions. For decades, scientists have been trying to replicate the process on earth. Researchers have for the first time replicated such conditions on earth, generating more energy from a fusion reaction than the power they used to ignite it.
Updated Dec 14, 2022 | 10:11 AM IST
The sun, which has been burning for over 4.6 billion years, runs on fusion reactions. For decades, scientists have been trying to replicate the process on earth.
US scientists have announced a major breakthrough on ‘ nuclear fusion
’ – for the first time a fusion reaction generated more energy than it took to ignite it. This is a big deal because it brings mankind one step closer to finally tapping a source of energy that can be apparently limitless – like the sun
– and very clean.
The sun, which has been burning for over 4.6 billion years, runs on fusion reactions. For decades, scientists have been trying to replicate the process on earth. This was incredibly challenging because to do this, scientists had to mimic certain conditions that are only found in the stars and our sun.
To recreate the physics of stars, scientists had to keep the fusion fuel (heavy isotopes of hydrogen) very hot. This is difficult because the fuel wants to leak out and cool – containing this is a challenge and expends more energy than was generated traditionally.
Why is fusion considered clean?
Nuclear fusion involves fusing two hydrogen nuclei with enormous force such that it becomes a helium nucleus. In the process, a vast amount of energy is released. Unlike nuclear fission (which involves splitting a nucleus into lighter nuclei), the waste generated is lesser and manageable.
Nuclear reactions are considered clean because they do not emit carbon. They also use fuel that is abundantly available – hydrogen. And, only a small amount of fuel can generate power making it an apparently limitless resource.
What did the latest experiment achieve?
Associated Press reports that researchers at the National Ignition Facility, the division of Lawrence Livermore National laboratory in California, “used 192 lasers and temperatures multiple times hotter than the center of the sun to create an extremely brief fusion reaction.”
The lasers beamed vast amounts of heat onto a small spherical capsule. The subsequent nuclear fusion reaction generated about 1.5 times more energy than was contained in the light used to produce it, AP reported scientists saying.
So, what’s next?
While the breakthrough is astonishing and the fruit of years of labour, there is still a long road ahead to extract sustainable electricity from the process. Researchers involved in the project explained to AP that the net energy gain achievement applied to the fusion reaction itself, not the total amount of power it took to operate the lasers and run the project.
Scientists need to yet derive a feasible way to produce significantly more power and for longer periods from the fusion reaction.
If they succeed, it will prove a great milestone for mankind in its endeavor to find a source of energy that is clean, powerful, sustainable and seemingly limitless.