Nuclear Fusion Breakthrough Could Unlock the Gateway to Unlimited Clean Energy
Nuclear fusion is regarded by some scientists as the future of energy generation, as it emits no greenhouse gases, produces only a small amount of waste and there’s no risk of nuclear accidents. It’s what powers the stars in the universe, with two light nuclei merging to form a single nucleus. As the single nucleus is lighter in mass than the two original nuclei, the leftover mass is turned into energy instead.
In California, 192 high-powered lasers heated up a capsule to more than 3,000,000°C, briefly simulating the conditions found inside a star. The experiment, which had been done hundreds of times previously, had finally produced more energy than was consumed, achieving an energy net gain in less time than it takes for light to travel an inch.
In the experiment, 2.05MJ of energy was used to heat the fuel, but 3.15MJ was released in the process. However, before the fanfare and pageantry, let’s remind ourselves that these high-powered lasers are just that, taking an immense amount of energy, between 384 and 400MJ, to power up. That’s a net energy loss of over 99%. See the chart below for the breakdown of the units of energy involved in the test.
The test itself is only conducted over a period of time as short as a few billionths of a second, but in that time, the lasers draw 500 trillion watts of power, which is more power than the output by the entire US national grid. As such, the lab can only fire the lasers a few times a day. While the results need to be replicated in order to prove the viability, they also need to be conducted within the finest margins of error, less than 1% the width of a strand of hair.
The main issue with nuclear fusion is that the heat of the nuclei needs to be separated from any force that has the potential to cool it down. The Sun manages to get around this with its immense heat and gravitational pull, which fuses atoms that would otherwise repel each other. Since the 1930s, scientists have been trying to replicate nuclear fusion on Earth.
Currently, nuclear fusion has been whittled down to the fusing of a pair of hydrogen isotopes: deuterium and tritium. This is because these isotopes release much more energy than any other pairing and require less heat in the process, and are also readily available in seawater. The whole process of nuclear fusion provides a potentially unlimited source of energy, especially now that researchers have managed to release more energy in an experiment than was put in.
The net energy gain proves the viability of nuclear fusion as the future of energy generation. It provides a turning point in how it can be eventually made commercially viable so we can stop using fossil fuels. With no nuclear waste, it’s much friendlier to the planet than nuclear fission, which is the system that nuclear power plants have always operated.
As exciting as this breakthrough is, it could be 20 or 30 years before we see a further project on an industrial scale. Scientists around the world are hoping this will change the way energy is generated in the future as the process itself is extremely safe. It could very well prove to be the future solution for all of our energy problems, but until that point, there are a lot of barriers to overcome.