The pursuit of clean energy alternatives has continued to accelerate over the last decade in the wake of climate shifts. The use of fossil fuels to meet energy demands remains a serious issue despite these efforts. Solar, electric, wind and clean energy efforts have yet to offer effective energy solutions to scale. Likewise, other options like nuclear power pose threats related to radioactive waste. For these reasons, many scientists and energy policymakers are hoping that a fusion energy power source might provide the answer. And based on a recent nuclear fusion energy breakthrough, this may be the case.
At the National Ignition Facility at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, a recent announcement was made. Scientists there had been able to create a fusion energy power source that exceeded the energy required to make it. Having a net energy gain through this process represented a major first in the field. And as such, man believe this nuclear fusion energy breakthrough ushers in a new era. Of course, before fusion energy can be touted as climate change’s savior, there remain many hurdles to overcome. But the recent discovery certainly suggests we’re moving in a positive direction.
“Scientists have struggled to show that fusion can release more energy than is put in since the 1950s, and the researchers at Lawrence Livermore seem to have finally and absolutely smashed this decades-old goal.” – Dr Arthur Turrell, Plasma Physicist and Author of The Star Builders
Fusion Energy’s Journey to Date
The road to this most recent nuclear fusion energy breakthrough has been a long one. Over a century ago, scientists were able to eventually determine this fueled both the sun and stars. Their fusion power energy source was perpetually derived from ongoing fusion reactions. It was not until the 1930s that scientists around the world began to collaborate on developing a similar energy process. This was when the International Thermonuclear Experimental Rection (ITER) group was formed involving 35 countries eventually. This is the same group who is developing a massive nuclear fusion experimental site in France.
Efforts to advance this potential technology then enjoyed another nuclear fusion energy breakthrough in 1968. This breakthrough came about thanks to scientists in the Soviet Union who first developed the Tokamak. The Tokamak is a machine that is capable of generating massive amounts of heat in millions of degrees of Celsius. This is achieved through the use of two massive magnet within the machine, which will be used in ITER’s center in France. But while these efforts are through international coalitions, many private startups are also pursuing fusion energy power source solutions. The private nuclear fusion now has nearly 5 billion in capital investments that compliments public and state-based endeavors.
“It’s a century since we figured out it was fusion that was going on in our sun and all the other stars. And in that century, it took so many different kinds of advances that ultimately came together to the point that we could replicate that fusion activity in a laboratory.” – Arati Prabhakar, Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy
A Different Approach to Nuclear Fusion
In regard to the recent nuclear fusion energy breakthrough, scientists at the National Ignition Facility took a different approach. ITER and others using the Tokamak generated the massive amount of heat required via magnets. However, the current experiments utilized lasers to create the heat required. In fact, a total of 192 lasers were required to generate the 3 million degrees of Celsius. This was the amount of heat required to “fuse” plasma molecules of deuterium and tritium, both isotopes of hydrogen. As a result of using this strategy, the lab was able to create a fusion energy power source significantly higher than prior research attempts.
In total, the experiment produced a fusion energy power source of 2.5 Megajoules. However, it only required 2.1 Megajoules of laser energy to do so. Therefore, there was a 20% gain in energy production overall in the form of heat. As the plasma molecules fuse, helium and neutrons are released. Because these are lighter in mass than the hydrogen material, the extra mass is converted to energy. This is how fusion experiments generate such large amounts of energy. But the real nuclear fusion energy breakthrough was not that but instead the net energy gain. Past experiments using magnets, or magnetic confinement fusion, have yielded a 30% net loss in energy. Thus, this is the first time any such nuclear fusion result has shown a positive net energy gain.
“Unlike coal, you only need a small amount of hydrogen, and it is the most abundant thing found in the universe.” – Julio Friedmann, Chief Scientist at Carbon Direct
A Good Start But Still Far to Go
A few years ago, scientists believed a commercially viable fusion energy power source was at least a half-century away. But with the latest nuclear fusion energy breakthrough, many have cut this time in half. No matter what, it is likely to be decades before fusion energy is feasible for a variety of reasons. First of all, the process is highly expensive and a more cost-effective solutions (laser or otherwise) is needed. In addition, the massive heat energy must be converted and stored for broader energy uses. And finally, the fusion reactions must be sustained, which remains an issue at present. None of these are easy problems to solve. But as time has shown, progress is certainly being made.
Progress alone is not what’s fueling hopes that a fusion energy power source might be a global energy solution. Fusion energy itself is ideal in so many ways. It only requires hydrogen as a fuel source, which is incredibly abundant. Likewise, it has zero carbon emission and no radioactive waste byproducts. This is why private funding for nuclear fusion companies continues to grow. And with this most recent nuclear fusion energy breakthrough, expect additional investments to be forthcoming. Without question, fusion energy is a major game-changer. And it looks like we took one very large step toward realizing it as part of our energy future.