A nationwide laboratory has simply reached a “Wright Brothers Second” in nuclear fusion

The National Ignition Facility of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in Livermore, California. The blue ball in the middle is the target chamber in which the fusion reactions take place.

Photo courtesy Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory

The Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory announced a major achievement in fusion research on Tuesday. Fusion, the lesser known and opposite reaction to nuclear fission, is when two atoms collide to form a heavier atom and release energy. This is how the sun generates energy.

“Our result is a significant step forward in understanding what it takes to make it work. For me, this is a Wright Brothers moment, ”said Omar A. Hurricane, senior scientist for the Inertial Confinement Fusion Program at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory CNBC.

“It’s impractical, but we got going for a moment,” said Hurricane.

The laboratory, based in Livermore, Calif., Announced Tuesday that it was able to produce 1.3 megajoules of energy at its National Ignition Facility on Aug. 8, albeit very briefly.

At the National Ignition Facility, which is the size of three football fields, super-powerful laser beams generate temperatures and pressures similar to those in the cores of stars, giant planets and inside exploding nuclear weapons, a spokesman told CNBC.

On August 8, a laser light was focused on a target the size of a BB, creating a “hotspot the diameter of a human hair producing more than 10 trillion watts of fusion power for 100 trillionths of a second.” it says in the written declaration.

Crucially, the results take “a significant step towards ignition,” said a statement from the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

“The ignition is a turning point in the fusion process where the fusion heats itself and overcomes any possible cooling losses,” Hurricane told CNBC. “Once that happens, a feedback process is created where the heating creates more fusion, which creates more heat, which creates more fusion, and so on.”

Getting to the place where a fusion reaction generates more energy than it consumes, the ignition, is something of a holy grail for companies trying to commercialize the fusion and sell it as a clean source of energy.

Whether the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory experiment was able to “generate net energy” is “complicated because the answer depends on where you start billing for energy use,” Hurricane said.

In the target chamber where the fusion reactions take place in the National Ignition Facility of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in Livermore, California.

Photo courtesy Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory

“The bottom line is that very little energy goes into the fusion fuel compared to the electricity we used to charge the laser,” said Hurricane.

“As a result, there is no net energy gain compared to the electricity we drew for the experiments. This is one of the reasons why I find our power generation scheme to be impractical. However, the fusion energy generated was approximately five times the energy that is absorbed by the capsule and around 70% of the laser energy that is shot at the target – these are the essential aspects. “

The results have not yet been published in a peer-reviewed journal, but that process will take place, said the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. News announcements are usually tied to publications in peer-reviewed magazines, but “the news spread because of the scale of this feat, so we felt it was important to get the facts out,” a spokesman told CNBC.

An important milestone, but a long way to go before the merger

The news certainly represents progress, but it does not signal a fundamental change in the way energy will be generated in the near future.

“The current experiment produces a large amount of electricity … but only for a very short time … and as yields increase, experiments like this will produce more electricity for longer periods of time, important steps on the road to commercial electricity generation that can be need positive net electricity production for a long period of time, “said Brett Rampal, director of nuclear innovation at the Clean Air Task Force, an energy policy think tank.

“There is still a long way to go,” added Rampal.

Andrew Holland, CEO of the Fusion Industry Association, is excited about Tuesday’s announcement.

“Proof of ignition is the ‘kitty-hawk moment’ for fusion energy,” Holland told CNBC.

“It will prove that we can use fusion energy to generate electricity on earth,” says Holland. “It will provide a deep scientific understanding of how fusion works, and that will help all fusion developers build their power plants better.”

However, Hurricane is more cautious about seeing merger as the answer to the need for clean energy.

“While our team is very excited about this result because it is a hard-won scientific / engineering achievement, I don’t see it as useful for a clean source of energy. However, what we learn from our results may be relevant. ”Hurricane tells CNBC.

“I am generally very concerned that the merger is being hyped as the solution to climate change,” he says. “My personal opinion is that fusion energy is still a technology of the future, so it would be foolish for people to rely on fusion to address the immediate climate problems.”

It is also noteworthy that research at the National Ignition Facility of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory is part of the Stockpile Stewardship Program, a government initiative launched in 1995 to study aging nuclear weapons without nuclear testing.

“One of the NIF’s original visions was to be a substitute for underground nuclear testing and to keep weapons scientists attached to the reality of the experiment so that the nation could rely on their skills, knowledge, and most importantly, judgment,” said Hurricane. “This new result helps support that vision.”

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