Home NEWS This lab made a spectacular breakthrough in fusion energy

This lab made a spectacular breakthrough in fusion energy

This lab made a spectacular breakthrough in fusion energy

California’s Livermore — After millennia of attempting to generate the power of a star on Earth, a successful nuclear fusion ignition occurred in the middle of a December night and lasted 20 billionths of a second.

That’s more than 100 billion times shorter than the Wright Brother’s initial 12-second flight, but it’s a brief, bright moment with far-reaching consequences for civilization.

While scientists at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory are still buzzing over their Wright Brothers moment, we only remember that name because their third flight lasted 39 minutes.

Before the comparison can be made, the nuclear fusion reaction must be repeated, expanded, and scaled. And the rush to make it work is on.

“But that’s what makes it so exciting, right?” lead scientist Tammy Ma told the associated press. “The potential for clean, abundant, limitless, affordable energy is enormous.” It’ll be difficult. It won’t be easy. But it is worthwhile.”

Ma’s office is a three-football-field-sized box of lasers in the corner of a 7,000-acre lab in Livermore. Miles of square tubes, each housing 192 of the world’s most intense lasers, snake across the soaring white ceilings, all winding toward a round room in the center.

Every time they execute a fusion experiment, the exact center of this target chamber becomes the hottest spot in the solar system, and it is covered in enough sparkling gear that J.J. Abrams utilized it to portray the warp core of the USS Enterprise in “Stark Trek Into Darkness.”

Critics in Congress dubbed the National Ignition Facility the “National Almost Ignition Facility,” or “NAIF,” because of its history of delays and expense overruns. The program might have lost funding years ago if it hadn’t been for its work developing nuclear armament without the need for test explosions.

However, for the first time since its inception in 1997, the National Ignition Facility can now live up to its name. In December, 192 of the world’s most powerful lasers heated a tiny pellet of hydrogen atoms with such force that they fused to form helium and, more significantly, extra energy.

A little more than 2 megajoules of energy went into the target chamber and came out with 3.15 megajoules – a tiny gain of roughly 50%, but enough to make history and allow scientists to declare the experiment a true success.

Five subsequent attempts have all failed to replicate it.

“We’ve learned a lot through those experiments,” Lawrence Livermore Director Kimberly Budil said at a celebration of the ignition in December. “And we’re confident we’ll get back above that mark.” However, it is still mostly an R&D effort at this time.”

While some failed attempts utilized less power than the successful shot, others were unable to replicate the precision of the diamond capsules used to trap the hydrogen atoms.

“We made several modifications to try to compensate for the fact that the capsules weren’t perfect, and some of those worked better than others,” Budil stated. “As a result, there is always hope.” However, based on the history of studies that we’ve conducted, very minor changes in input yield very substantial variations in output yield.”

“Every time we do a shot, we are the hottest place in the solar system,” Ma added, pointing to the kilometers of mirrors that can transform $14 worth of electricity into a force “a thousand times the power of the entire US electrical grid.” But when we take a shot, your lights don’t flicker at home because we’re compressing a massive amount of energy into nanoseconds.”

The facility was created using 20-year-old technology, according to Ma, and if they were to recreate it today — or build a true nuclear-fusion power plant — “you would use new technology that is a lot more efficient, could shoot at much higher rates, with higher efficiency, and very high precision.”

So far, the nuclear-fusion sector has been divided among those who use lasers to ignite ignition, similar to a series of firecrackers, and those who use magnets powerful enough to lift an aircraft carrier to control streams of plasma swirling around a doughnut-shaped contraption known as a tokamak.

Scientists in Oxford used the magnet approach in 2021 to generate a record-breaking amount of sustained energy for five seconds.

“In ten years, they will be where we were ten years ago,” said Bruno Van Wonterghem, NIF’s operations manager, indicating how competitive the burgeoning fusion race has become.

Even before December’s successful shot, private investment in fusion technology was expected to increase by 2021, with hundreds of startups attempting to solve the limitless obstacles of fusion in creative ways. One Vancouver business is seeking to regulate neutrons using a vortex of liquid metal, while Lawrence Livermore Lab alumni have spun off an idea for compact, modular fusion reactors, with Bill Gates and Shell Oil as backers.

Helion Energy is making the most audacious claims of the startup crowd, garnering some of the greatest backers in tech, including a $375 million investment from Open AI CEO Sam Altman. Helion claims that its massive dumbbell-shaped prototype would fire plasma rings at a million miles per hour and demonstrate the potential to produce electricity through fusion by next year.

Helion says it will build its first plant in Washington state after Microsoft confirmed a commitment to buy 50 megawatts of electricity from it in 2028. However, this is the first-of-its-kind fusion power purchase agreement, accounting for only around 0.04% of the clean electricity Microsoft purchased in 2022.

The International Atomic Energy Agency does not expect to produce electricity from fusion until the second part of the century, and as difficult as it is to regulate sun-hot plasma, it is equally difficult to control the expense of producing it.

“At the moment, we’re spending a huge amount of time and money for every experiment we do,” Jeremy Chittenden, co-director of Imperial College’s Centre for Inertial Fusion Studies, told the associated press. “We need to significantly reduce the cost.”

Ma believes that now that they have had their Wright Brothers moment, the world will someday fly, work, and live on fusion.

“If the United States decides to do it, we can do it.” It is just a matter of time. “It’s a financial issue,” Ma explained. “It’s a decision we must all make together.” And I believe that will happen in the coming decades.

“For sure.”


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