On Wednesday, U.S. government scientists announced a crucial step forward in the long journey toward making nuclear fusion — the mechanism that generates power to stars – a viable energy source for humanity.
Using the world’s most giant laser, the researchers persuaded fusion fuel for the first time to heat itself beyond the heat they shot into it, generating phenomena known as a burning plasma that signified a step toward self-sustaining fusion energy.
The energy generated was minimal – around the equivalent of nine 9-volt batteries used to operate smoke alarms and other small devices. However, the trials at a Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory facility in California were a watershed moment in the decades-long effort to capture fusion energy, even if the experts emphasized that further work is required.
The studies resulted in the self-heating of matter in a plasma state by nuclear fusion, which merges atomic nuclei to liberate energy. Plasma is one of the four states of matter, along with solid, liquid, and gas.
Alex Zylstra, an experimental physicist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, stated:
“If you want to make a camp fire, you want to get the fire to hot enough that the wood can keep itself burning. This is a good analogy for a burning plasma, where the fusion is now starting to become self-sustaining.”
The scientists fired 192 laser beams at a tiny target carrying a capsule more petite than a tenth of an inch (about 2 mm) in diameter loaded with fusion fuel made up of a plasma of deuterium and tritium – two isotopes, or forms, of hydrogen.
Unlike burning fossil fuels or the fission process of existing nuclear power plants, fusion provides the potential of plentiful energy without pollution, radioactive waste, or greenhouse gases. Nuclear fission energy is produced by splitting atoms. Fusing atoms create fusion energy, exactly as within stars like our sun.
Several private-sector projects — hundreds of firms and organizations – are also exploring a fusion energy future, with some oil giants even investing.
Fusion energy is the holy grail of clean, unlimited energy, as Annie Kritcher of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory stated.
In these studies, fusion generated around ten times the energy used to heat the fuel, but less than ten percent of the whole amount of laser energy since the process is still inefficient, according to Zylstra. The laser was only employed for around ten billionths of a second in each experiment, with fusion production lasting 100 trillionths of a second, according to Kritcher.
Zylstra is delighted with the outcomes:
“Making fusion a reality is an enormously complex technological challenge, and it will require serious investment and innovation to make it practical and economical,” Zylstra added. “I view fusion as a decadal-scale challenge for it to be a viable source of energy.”