By Sheroog Kubur, January 19 2022—
The National Ignition Facility at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) in California made a breakthrough by producing energy through nuclear fusion. The amount produced was only enough to boil 15-20 kettles of water, but the breakthrough represents something much more.
“This is a historic achievement. Over the past 90 years, thousands of people have contributed to this endeavour and it took real vision to get us here,” said LLNL director Dr. Kim Budil to the BBC.
Nuclear fusion is the process used by the Sun to generate energy. The process involves two atoms coming together to fuse into one element, which produces massive quantities of energy. It’s a difficult process because two atoms with the same charge naturally repel each other, meaning just as much, if not more, energy is required for the fusion. The Sun contains the right conditions for nuclear fusion thanks to the extremely high heat and pressure. Scientists on earth have been trying to replicate nuclear fusion since the 30s, but until now there have been no successes in producing more energy than what was consumed in the reaction.
The International Atomic Energy Agency maintains that the process is intrinsically safe because of the extreme conditions the process requires, meaning if the conditions aren’t fulfilled fully, then the process would self-extinguish.
The experiment at the LLNL used a 192-beam laser to heat and compress hydrogen fuel, forcing the hydrogen atoms to fuse. The laser reaches 100 million degrees Celsius — which is hotter than the core of the Sun — and creates a high-pressure environment 100 times stronger than Earth’s atmosphere. The experiment had an input of 2.05 megajoules (MJ) and produced 3.15 MJ of energy, according to Dr. Marvin Adams, the deputy administrator for defense programs at the US National Nuclear Security Administration.
Nuclear fusion has been sought after as the cleaner form of energy than nuclear fission. Nuclear fission is currently the most widespread nuclear energy production practice, but it comes alongside the production of large amounts of radioactive waste. Nuclear fusion, on the other hand, produces much smaller quantities of short-lived radioactive waste and doesn’t produce any greenhouse gases. It has the potential to produce energy that is four-times per kilogram that of fission and four million times its coal or oil counterparts. It also uses materials that are relatively abundant, lithium and hydrogen, and doesn’t rely on ideal weather conditions like solar or wind energy, making it a strong contender for sustainable energy in the future.
“The pursuit of fusion ignition in the laboratory is one of the most significant scientific challenges ever tackled by humanity, and achieving it is a triumph of science, engineering and most of all, people,” Budil said.
The technology still has a long way to go before it becomes common. The energy input and output reported by Adams doesn’t consider the energy used to power the lasers, which vastly exceeds the energy produced by the hydrogen atoms. The experiment was also part of a 3.5 billion dollar experiment looking into nuclear fusion. One big challenge remains scaling down the production and increasing the energy output.