Call it a breakthrough in science: Researchers from a California lab have succeeded for the first time in conducting a nuclear fusion experiment with a net energy gain. More power is generated than is supplied. At a widely publicized press conference in Washington, D.C., it was said that “This will go down in the history books.”
For decades, nuclear fusion has been the energy source of the future. Research is being done in drips and drips, but so far no reactor has produced more power than it costs.
Power generation through nuclear fusion is seen as a way to obtain safe, carbon-free energy in large quantities, without producing waste. It can replace fossil fuels and other traditional energy sources.
Lots of energy
Generation requires a lot of energy. Unlike nuclear fission, which takes place in nuclear power plants, nuclear fusion actually fuses atomic nuclei. This requires extremely high temperature and extremely high pressure to get the atomic nuclei to the point where they no longer repel each other, but rather fuse together.
These types of processes are constantly happening in the cores of stars. In the sun, for example, nuclear fusion is constantly taking place, after which huge amounts of energy are created in the form of light and heat. Simulating such a process on Earth is very difficult.
Using 192 extremely powerful lasers, researchers at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California have managed to heat a capsule containing atomic nuclei to 100 million degrees Celsius, a temperature warmer than the core of the Sun. They did this for a billionth of a second, thus creating their own (small) version of the Sun. Under these conditions, nuclear fusion can occur.
Although the conclusion reached by the Americans is indeed a major scientific step in nuclear fusion, it does not mean that energy can be quickly generated on a large scale. It is difficult to translate the method the researchers used into a reactor.
Thus, nuclear fusion is not the answer to the energy and climate crisis we are currently experiencing. Scientists don’t expect nuclear fusion to be used on a commercial scale until after 2050. But before the second half of this century, it could actually become a significant source of energy, when the world is carbon dioxide neutral.
However, scientists stress that this is an important step. “It’s a starting shot,” the researchers said at the news conference. Net energy gain has long been an elusive goal precisely because fusion occurs at high temperatures and pressures that are incredibly difficult to control.
Scientists compare this breakthrough to when people first learned that refining oil into gasoline and igniting it could cause an explosion. “You still don’t have the engine and you still don’t have the tires. So you can’t say you have a car,” he said.
The result can therefore be considered a scientific success, but there is still a long way to go to achieving clean, abundant, usable energy. This still requires enormous resources and efforts to advance fusion research.
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