The past few decades has seen a lot of research focused on recreating nuclear fusion. Having unlimited clean, safe and affordable energy will become possible once it can be replicated on an industrial scale. Nuclear Fusion is the type of reaction that makes stars shine (Barbarino, 2022). As a result of nuclear fusion, heavy nuclei are created by combining two light ones, releasing enormous amounts of energy in the process (Barbarino, 2022). Recently, nuclear fusion has undergone a major development. Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) scientists in California, USA announced on December 13, 2022 that they had achieved a long-awaited goal of reproducing solar power in a laboratory (Chang, 2022). It is the first time a nuclear fusion reaction produced in a lab has achieved a net energy gain, meaning it produced more energy than it consumed to initiate the reaction (Chang, 2022). The technology could be applied to the generation of energy necessary to sustain life on earth if mass produced at an industrial scale (Fountain, 2022).
What was Different about this Experiment?
Prior to the LLNL lab discovery, most nuclear fusion reactions were replicated by trapping hydrogen, fusing it and releasing energy through doughnut-shaped reactors (Lopez, 2022). To be considered a true source of energy, those experiments must produce more energy than they consume, which in the past few decades, none have ever achieved (Chang, 2022).
LLNL lab has taken a different approach. 192 lasers were fired at a hydrogen pellet (Lopez, 2022). During this process, the pellet is heated up, in turn imploded, fused into helium, and released energy (Lopez, 2022). During the course of the past several years, the lab has been modifying how and where lasers are fired in order to achieve the optimal results (Lopez, 2022). In December, the changes proved successful: The resulting nuclear fusion produced about 50 percent more energy than the laser energy that was consumed in the process (Lopez, 2022).
What is the Significance of this Discovery?
One may wonder what the significance of these experimental results represents. Currently, nuclear fission, the opposite of nuclear fusion, is the dominant method of energy generation in nuclear plants (Fountain, 2022). It produces energy by combining two heavier atoms. This process does not reduce greenhouse gas emissions very effectively and generates a significant amount of toxic waste (Fountain, 2022).
In 2050, doubling nuclear power capacity worldwide would only reduce greenhouse gas emissions by around 4%, according to the World Nuclear Association and the OECD Nuclear Energy Agency (Leman, 2022). For this to happen, 37 new large nuclear reactors would need to be added to the grid every year until 2050 (Leman, 2022). However, the construction of 37 new nuclear reactors worldwide is physically impossible due to the difficulties that come with making large forgings like reactor vessels (Leman, 2022).
Additionally, nuclear fission generates about 3% of toxic radioactive waste in the process of energy production (What are the pros and cons of nuclear energy? 2019). According to estimates, 97% of radioactive waste is harmless and becomes non-radioactive within a few days or weeks. It can then be disposed of as regular waste. There are, however, 3% of nuclear wastes that are classified as high-level radioactive and toxic wastes (What are the pros and cons of nuclear energy? 2019). It can remain radioactive for hundreds of years (What are the pros and cons of nuclear energy? 2019). Keeping high-level nuclear waste away from people in a storage facility is the best way to protect people’s health and safety. The daily monitoring and maintenance of the nuclear waste facilities can be very expensive. (What are the pros and cons of nuclear energy? 2019). This will not be a problem for nuclear fusion plants. Fusion fuel is more readily available, and the radioactive waste generated is far less hazardous (Fountain, 2022).
In spite of the excitement generated by the net energy gain experimental results, scientists acknowledged that it could take decades for this breakthrough to be commercialized (Lopez, 2022). This kind of fusion reaction has only been achieved once in the history of science (Lopez, 2022). For commercial use, lasers would need to be fired continuously and reliably up to 10 times a second in order to consistently reproduce those results (Lopez, 2022).
Additionally, there are concerns about the feasibility of using the experimental setup in a commercial setting due to its cost and scale (Stallard, 2022). Due to its size, immense cost, and inefficiency, the LLNL’s laser complex is not feasible for a commercial power plant (Stallard, 2022).
In spite of this, there is still a lot to be optimistic about when it comes to fusion energy generation technology. Scientists develop most breakthroughs in unrealistic lab environments before refining them for public use (Lopez, 2022). This discovery at least suggests that nuclear fusion can be used as a clean energy source (Lopez, 2022). The time has come to continue research and development, and ultimately commercialize this technology, in the hope it will make the Earth a more comfortable place for humanity to live.
Barbarino, M. (2022, March 31). What is nuclear fusion? IAEA. Retrieved December 19, 2022, from https://www.iaea.org/newscenter/news/what-is-nuclear-fusion
Chang, K. (2022, December 13). Scientists achieve nuclear fusion breakthrough with blast of 192 lasers. The New York Times. Retrieved December 19, 2022, from https://www.nytimes.com/2022/12/13/science/nuclear-fusion-energy-breakthrough.html?auth=login-google1tap&login=google1tap
Fountain, H. (2022, December 13). Can fusion solve the climate crisis? The New York Times. Retrieved December 19, 2022, from https://www.nytimes.com/2022/12/13/climate/fusion-climate-change.html?action=click&module=RelatedLinks&pgtype=Article
Leman, M. (2022, November 26). 6 reasons why nuclear energy is not the way to a green and peaceful world. Greenpeace International. Retrieved December 19, 2022, from https://www.greenpeace.org/international/story/52758/reasons-why-nuclear-energy-not-way-green-and-peaceful-world/
Let’s Talk Science. (2019, January 23). What are the pros and cons of nuclear energy? Let’s Talk Science. Retrieved December 19, 2022, from https://letstalkscience.ca/educational-resources/stem-in-context/what-are-pros-and-cons-nuclear-energy
Lopez, G. (2022, December 14). Turning sci-fi into reality. The New York Times. Retrieved December 19, 2022, from https://www.nytimes.com/2022/12/14/briefing/nuclear-fusion.html?name=styln-fusion-energy®ion=TOP_BANNER&block=storyline_menu_recirc&action=click&pgtype=Article&variant=show&is_new=false
Stallard, E. (2022, December 14). Nuclear fusion breakthrough – what is it and how does it work? BBC News. Retrieved December 19, 2022, from https://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-63957085