By: Macy Dennon
The National Ignition Facility at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) in California recently announced a breakthrough in nuclear fusion. Currently, most nuclear power plants use fission to generate energy. This widely used reaction involves splitting heavy isotopes into smaller isotopes. When the split occurs, the large amount of energy released results in heat. The significant issue with nuclear fission is its radioactivity that poses a danger to life on earth.
As opposed to fission, nuclear fusion produces no long-lasting radioactivity. As lighter atoms are forced together, fusion occurs, creating vast amounts of energy. Moreover, because nuclear fusion requires high temperatures and pressures, it remains an unsolved problem in research.
Recently, researchers conducted a fusion experiment that produced more energy that initially went into the reaction, countering the normal problem with nuclear fusion: using more energy than it gives off. Dr. Kim Budil, the LLNL director, stated “This is a historic achievement; thousands of people have contributed to this endeavor and it took real vision to get us here.” The hope is that eventually this process will produce clean energy to power the world.
Dr. Melanie Windridge, CEO of Fusion Energy Insights, said in an interview with BBC, “Fusion has been exciting scientists since they first figured out what was causing the Sun to shine. These results today really put us on the path to the commercialisation of the technology.”
Dr. Budil acknowledged there are still significant hurdles but “with concerted efforts and investment, a few decades of research on the underlying technologies could put [LLNL] in a position to build a power plant.” As nuclear power plants develop in the future, money may also play a role in the possibility of switching to fusion. A repeatable, perfected, and significantly enhanced test must be conducted before scientists can even imagine scaling up the experiment.
This experiment has cost billions of dollars, and the cost of running the experiment alone costs three-point-five-billion-dollars. Despite billions of dollars of investment, the experiment produced only enough energy to boil 15-20 kettles of water.
(Sources: Forbes, National Geographic, BBC, Washington Post, NY Times)