AUG 19, 2021 2:00 PM PDT

A "Wright Brothers Moment" for Nuclear Fusion

WRITTEN BY: Matthew Lundy

According to a Wednesday press release, physicists at the National Ignition Facility (NIF), part of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, have achieved a “historic step” in research aimed at nuclear fusion, arriving at the doorstep of long sought after fusion ignition.

Nuclear fusion is the process by which two atomic nuclei are fused together, resulting in a massive amount of excess energy. The newly fused atom has less mass than the sum of the originally distinct atoms; this loss in mass is converted to energy according to the famous equation E=mc2 (energy = mass times the speed of light squared).

Fusion is the counterpart to nuclear fission, the process of splitting of an atom. While nuclear fission is what powers the nuclear power plants of today, nuclear fusion is the supposed energy source of the future, as it has the potential to generate much more energy with no threat of meltdown or radioactive waste. Fusion is also what powers our Sun, so most of the energy on Earth already comes from fusion, in a way.

The NIF being built out of 10-cm thick plates of aluminum. The recent development in fusion research is from an August 8th experiment in which researchers were able to yield a significant 1.3 megajoules (MJ) of energy from a fusion reaction. Fusion reactions have been achieved in the past, generally through some attempt at mimicking conditions that would be found in a star, like our Sun. That means extremely high temperatures and pressure levels.

 

However, man-made fusion reactions have never produced enough energy to sustain themselves, let alone produce enough excess energy to meaningfully contribute to a power grid. The point of fusion self-sustenance is called “ignition” (like the “ignition” in NIF) and would be a major milestone in the research effort. This recent yield reportedly “…puts researchers at the threshold of fusion ignition…”

In a statement to CNBC, Omar A. Hurricane, Chief Scientist for the Inertial Confinement Fusion Program at LLNL, even went as far as saying that “…this is a Wright Brothers moment,” continuing that “it’s not practical, but we got off the ground for a moment.” The emphasis is on “moment” seeing how the experiment was able to generate “more than 10 quadrillion watts of fusion power,” but only for 100 trillionths of a second.

Despite being short lived, the higher energy yield does put us one step closer to ignition and meaningful fusion power. Los Alamos National Laboratory Director Thomas Mason explains that “this enables experiments that will check theory and simulation in the high energy density regime more rigorously than ever possible before and will enable fundamental achievements in applied science and engineering.”

The idea of nuclear fusion generating near limitless energy around the globe is a wonderous one, even utopic considering that it always seems like fusion is just 10, 20, or 30 years away. But real, tangible progress is being made, yields are increasing, and breakthroughs are happening. It may need more time, and a whole lot more funding, but the research seems to say that we should not count out nuclear fusion just yet.

 

Source: LLNL; CNBC; Discover

Banner Image Source: Damien Jemison/LLNL

Article Image Source: LLNL

About the Author
MSc in Science Communication, BS in Astrophysics and Philosophy
Science communicator passionate about physics, space, and our, unfortunately, changing climate; exploring the universe through written word and the occasional video.
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