US researchers make nuclear fusion a viable energy source

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On Wednesday, US government scientists announced a crucial step in the long journey towards nuclear fusion – the mechanism that generates energy for stars – a viable energy source for humanity.

Using the world’s largest laser, researchers persuaded the fusion fuel for the first time to heat up beyond the heat they injected into it, generating a phenomenon known as burning plasma which meant a step towards autonomous fusion energy.

The power generated was minimal – about the equivalent of nine 9-volt batteries used to operate smoke detectors and other small devices. However, the tests at a Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory facility in California marked a turning point in the decades-long effort to capture fusion energy, though experts have stressed that more work is needed.

The studies led to the self-heating of matter in the plasma state by nuclear fusion, which fuses together atomic nuclei to release energy. Plasma is one of the four states of matter, along with solid, liquid and gas.

Alex Zylstra, experimental physicist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, said:

“If you want to have a campfire, you want the fire to be hot enough that the wood can continue to burn. It’s a good analogy for a hot plasma, where fusion is now starting to become self-sustaining.

The tests

Scientists fired 192 laser beams at a tiny target carrying a capsule smaller than a tenth of an inch (about 2mm) in diameter loaded with fusion fuel consisting of a plasma of deuterium and tritium – two isotopes, or forms , hydrogen .

Unlike the burning of fossil fuels or the fission process of existing nuclear power plants, fusion offers the potential for abundant energy without pollution, radioactive waste or greenhouse gases. Nuclear fission energy is produced by splitting atoms. The fusion of atoms creates fusion energy, just like in stars like our sun.

Several private sector projects – hundreds of companies 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 stated by Annie Kritcher of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

In those studies, the fusion generated about ten times the energy used to heat the fuel, but less than ten percent of the total amount of laser energy since the process is still inefficient, according to Zylstra. The laser was only used for about ten billionths of a second in each experiment, producing fusion for 100 trillionths of a second, according to Kritcher.

Zylstra is delighted with the results:

“Making fusion a reality is an extremely complex technological challenge, and it will require serious investment and innovation to make it practical and economical,” Zylstra added. “I see fusion as a decade-scale challenge for it to be a viable energy source.”

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