(Image Credit: Gam-Ol/pixabay)
Scientists at the National Ignition Facility recently achieved a breakthrough: generating a nuclear fusion reaction leading to a net energy gain. This experiment inches humanity closer to unlimited clean energy, helping to end our reliance on fossil fuels for energy production.
"The pursuit of fusion ignition in the laboratory is one of the most significant scientific challenges ever tackled by humanity, and achieving it is a triumph of science, engineering, and most of all, people," LLNL Director Dr. Kim Budil said. "Crossing this threshold is the vision that has driven 60 years of dedicated pursuit—a continual process of learning, building, expanding knowledge and capability, and then finding ways to overcome the new challenges that emerged. These are the problems that the U.S. national laboratories were created to solve."
The National Ignition Facility project produces energy via thermonuclear inertial fusion. Particularly, scientists beam hydrogen fuel pellets into an array of nearly 200 lasers, leading to rapid, repeated explosions at 50 times per second. Then, the energy obtained from the neutrons and alpha particles is released as heat, a vital ingredient for energy production.
However, this net energy gain is small, so it can't power electric grids or heat buildings, but it requires more to meet the ultimate goal. UK scientists have been working on a tokamak to achieve nuclear fusion. After adding some fuel to the tokamak, the huge magnets activate and generate a plasma, which must reach 150 million degrees Celsius, causing the fuel particles to fuse. Those fused particles have less mass compared to the atoms. Any misplaced mass then converts into huge amounts of energy.
Afterward, neutrons are released from the plasma, reaching a "blanket" covering the tokamak walls. The kinetic energy turns into heat, which warms the water, produces steam, and powers wind turbines. Last year, scientists set a new record with sustained energy generation, which lasted five seconds. Either way, fusing atoms through magnets or beaming pellets with lasers ultimately requires heat to generate huge amounts of energy.
Harnessing fusion energy still comes with a bigger challenge because it must be sustained for a long time to power worldwide grids and heating systems. Now, global scientists must scale up their fusion projects while making them more affordable. It also requires years of further research to make it commercially viable.
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