– This is a great day. This is the first time something like this has happened in a lab. This is BFD, US Energy Secretary Jennifer M. Granholm said at a press conference on Tuesday.
BFD means a big fucking deal – Very damn thing.
But how hard is that really? What does this mean?
Let’s make an honest attempt to answer some of the questions we think you may have.
Why should we care that American scientists got more energy from the fusion reaction than they put in?
Because one of the biggest challenges humanity is working to solve is access to green energy. Fusion has always been a potential solution In principle It can provide access to infinite amounts of energy. Now this solution seems to be a bit closer.
What is fusion of something?
The law of mass and energy, known as e = mc2, tells us that mass can be converted into energy, and that energy can be converted into mass. Merger is a case in point Mass can be converted into energy.
You don’t need to know how fusion works to enjoy fruit. And perhaps this is luck for many, because one of the fruits is that the Earth is livable. The sun is a huge fusion reactor.
The sun is a huge mass of gas and is full of hydrogen. So packed, in fact, that hydrogen atoms are constantly colliding with each other. If there are four hydrogen nuclei, each contains one proton themselves, collide with each other fast enough, starting a chain reaction that results in an atomic nucleus containing two protons and two neutrons. Popularly called helium.
The mass of a helium nucleus is less than the combined mass of a hydrogen nucleus. Where did the excess mass go? It has become energy that radiates from the sun.
This fusion of the atomic nuclei is fusion. So simple and so hard.
What exactly did they achieve at NIF?
At the National Ignition Facility at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, they work with Laser-induced fusion. The recipe they used is as follows.
- First, take a block of hydrogen the size of a peppercorn. It is important that you do not use ordinary hydrogen, you will have to obtain hydrogen isotopes deuterium (known from heavy water and hydrogen bombs) f tritium (known from heavy water and hydrogen bombs).
- Put the hydrogen block into a small cylinder.
- Synchronize 192 super powerful lasers so they can hit the same point at the same time.
- Fire the laser beams into the cylinder with the hydrogen block.
- Fingers crossed that the cylinder gets so hot that hydrogen isotopes fuse together to form a helium nucleus that has a neutron that must be spared.
- Take advantage of the thermal energy provided by the extra neutron.
What they’ve achieved now at NIF is implementing that with them Positive energy flow. This means that they generated more energy than they put out. Something that is obviously necessary for the method to be viable for energy production purposes – a power plant that uses more energy than it generates is a bad business idea.
Does this mean that the power problem has been solved?
No, not at all.
The energy that hit the hydrogen pepper was 2.05 megajoules, and the energy generated was 3.15 megajoules.
At first glance, it might seem like a way to give you 50 percent more energy than you put in.
However, at a second glance, you notice how much energy is used to power the laser. 322 megajoules, which is about a hundred times the energy extracted from the other end.
The experiment thus succeeds in producing an excess of energy in the fusion process itself, but the slightly larger calculations are still big in the red.
If you take the time to take a third look, you’ll notice that the laser must be refrigerated for several days after the experiment. In other words, it will take a while for this to turn into a reactor that can buzz and explode on its own.
Are there more ways to Fusion Room?
yes! Alternative NIF laser use is one possibility.
ITER, an international research collaboration that has been working with fusion electricity as a goal since 2007, is betting on the tokamak variant. It is a device that, with the help of a magnetic field, seals the plasma into a circular shape. When the plasma becomes dense enough and hot enough, fusion can occur.
The reactor they’re now in the process of completing is a research reactor, but the long-term goal is to create a tokamak that can sustain fusion, converting energy into electricity.
It currently appears that the tokamak variant is best suited if the goal is to use energy from fusion to produce energy. It is not clear how they will get the energy from the laser-driven fusion.
Having said that: NIF never intended to build a commercial fusion power plant. The experiment was designed primarily to give scientists working on nuclear weapons the opportunity to study thermonuclear processes.
So what would it take to go from “interesting to those working on it” to “woohoo, we have access to endless amounts of green energy”?
Quite a lot, to be honest.
First of all, we can format it with Endless amounts of green energy.
Fusion-based energy will be greener than most of the energy we use today. Still not completely free of a fingerprint.
The tokamak’s interiors, for example, would become radioactive, and would require waste solutions. We’re not talking about waste from the scale of a nuclear power plant, but it nonetheless belongs in the equation. And so does everything that’s done to get us where we need to be – and it doesn’t have to be bright green either.
And then, it’s not like everyone can eventually build a mini fusion reactor for themselves and they won’t have to think about electricity anymore.
Fusion reactors are big and expensive, and are likely destined for countries with lots of money and solid power grids. In other words, merger will not ensure that all people in the world will have all the power they need.
But she will definitely be able to help a lot!
We just aren’t there yet.
For now, as has been said many times The press conference where NIF made the breakthrough, and many, significant obstacles on the way to commercial fusion power plants. Both technological and scientific.
The two most important:
We should get more energy than we put in. Hence the current driving the laser must also be included in the calculation.
We must be able to convert the energy that is generated into electricity in a reasonable way.
Are we going to do that? We will definitely do that from time to time. But it will take time. And the times, of course.
Most knowledgeable people seem to agree that it will be a few decades into the future. So it’s not that we can now stop being attached to climate goals because merger will fix everything.
Does this mean that what happened in California wasn’t really a hack?
Well, that was definitely an important step on the way.
But there are still many steps to go.
Want to learn more about integration in general and the NIF and ITER experiences in particular? Check out this great episode of Abel’s Vault:
I mentioned Abel’s episode in the basement
Ann Cecily Larsen is Professor of Nuclear Physics and Energy at UiO
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