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Scientists at the US Department of Energy’s flagship laser facility shattered their own record earlier this month by generating more than 10 quadrillion watts of fusion power for a fraction of a second. Roughly 700 times the generating capacity of the entire US electrical grid at any given moment. The team at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California got about 70% of the way to ignition. Ignition is when the fusion reaction becomes self-sustaining and produces vast amounts of clean energy.

Despite mind-boggling differences in scale — NIF implosions (right) are being used to recreate the fusion conditions found in the deep interiors of stars (left)

In a fusion process, two light atomic nuclei join together to form a heavier nucleus, while releasing energy. See Einstein’s theory of Special Relativity for how it happens.

How Nuclear Fusion works – here’s what happens during the nuclear fusion process.

The Livermore, Calif.-based lab announced on Tuesday it had, back on Aug. 8, been able to produce 1.3 megajoules of energy at its National Ignition Facility, albeit for 100 trillionths of a second. The source is a target made from a gold cylinder that holds a frozen pellet of deuterium and tritium.

The National Ignition Facility is the size of three football fields. There, 192 super powerful laser beams focus on the target and create temperatures and pressures similar to what exists in the cores of stars, giant planets and inside exploding nuclear weapons.

“This is a giant step toward the holy grail of energy research,” said Michio Kaku, the famous professor of theoretical physics at the City University of New York. “A fusion reactor is carbon neutral, it does not create carbon dioxide, it does not create copious quantities of nuclear waste that you find in fission plants with uranium, it does not melt down,” said the author of “The God Equation: The Quest for a Theory of Everything.” “The fuel is sea water, hydrogen from seawater could be the basic fuel.”

“Our result is a significant step forward in understanding what is required for it to work. To me, this is a Wright Brothers moment,” said Omar A. Hurricane, Chief Scientist for the Inertial Confinement Fusion Program at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

Getting to the place where a fusion reaction makes more energy than it uses -ignition- is something of a holy grail for scientists and companies. They are trying to commercialize fusion as a clean energy source.

Whether or not the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory experiment was able to do that — to generate “net energy” — is “complicated because the answer depends upon where one starts the accounting for the energy input,” Hurricane said.

It is a common observation that nuclear fusion has been “just ten years away” for decades. Each new advancement gets us some percentage closer to a self-sustaining reaction.

The Livermore team and its collaborators are just beginning to pore over their results, but preliminary data suggest an 8-fold increase in energy yield compared with experiments conducted several months ago, and a 25-fold increase compared with the previously reported record, set in 2018. Laboratory officials said they made the announcement about the experiment before peer-reviewed publication. Because news of the results was already spreading through the fusion community.

The NIF also has a Defense mission and this research helps maintain the reliability of existing weapons and suggests new high-energy weapons.

There is another fusion reactor design under research at large scales, notably the new ITER tokamak in France.

In southern France, 35 nations* are collaborating to build the world’s largest tokamak, a magnetic fusion device that has been designed to prove the feasibility of fusion as a large-scale and carbon-free source of energy based on the same principle that powers our Sun and stars. In this photo, a central column is being erected in the centre of the Tokamak pit. It will help support the vacuum vessel sector sub-assemblies as they are welded together.
Inside the fusion chamber of the smaller DIII-D research tokamak, San Diego, USA. RswilcoxCC BY-SA

A tokamak is a device which uses a powerful magnetic field to confine plasma in the shape of a torus, or donut shape. The NIF result places them firmly in the lead in fusion research.

The new results certainly represent major progress, but it’s not ready to change how we use energy today. It’s the technology of the future that will eventually replace most fossil fuel. We need to stay informed as that time is growing closer. The petroleum industry may resist this clean fuel as they did solar energy.

Simply demonstrating nuclear fusion ignition is technically possible in a lab allows others to take the ball and run toward clean energy.

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David Raiklen
David Raiklen

David Raiklen wrote, directed and scored his first film at age 9. He began studying keyboard and composing at age 5. He attended, then taught at UCLA, USC and CalArts. Among his teachers are John Williams and Mel Powel.
He has worked for Fox, Disney and Sprint. David has received numerous awards for his work, including the 2004 American Music Center Award. Dr. Raiklen has composed music and sound design for theater (Death and the Maiden), dance (Russian Ballet), television (Sing Me a Story), cell phone (Spacey Movie), museums (Museum of Tolerance), concert (Violin Sonata ), and film (Appalachian Trail).
His compositions have been performed at the Hollywood Bowl and the first Disney Hall. David Raiken is also host of a successful radio program, Classical Fan Club.

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