ne of the most ambitious scientific projects that have been ongoing for the last 60 years is achieving nuclear fusion or, better said, the vast and almost infinite source of energy found within stars. Physics is quite complex, but nuclear fusion has always seemed simple yet almost impossible. The idea of combining two atoms to form a single heavier atom that triggers nuclear fusion to produce a vast amount of energy has been a trial and error for the past 60 years.
On December 5, 2.05 megajoules of energy were directed onto a small cylinder containing a pellet of frozen deuterium and tritium, heavier forms of hydrogen, at the National Ignition Facility (NIF), a section of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California.
The hydrogen inside the pellet fused as a result of the pellet’s compression, which also produced extremely high temperatures and pressures. The fusing atomic nuclei produced 3.15 megajoules of energy in a brief explosion that lasted less than a billionth of a second, almost 50% more energy than was consumed to heat the pellet.
“Simply put, this is one of the most impressive scientific feats of the 21st century,”U.S. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm said at a Washington, D.C. media briefing.
What is Nuclear Fusion?
The process of nuclear fusion is the union of two light atomic nuclei into one heavier one while releasing enormous quantities of energy.
Plasma, a hot, charged gas comprised of free-moving electrons and positive ions, is the state of matter where fusion events take place. Plasma has special features that make it different from solids, liquids, and other gases.
This reaction drives all other stars, including the sun. Nuclei must collide with one another at temperatures as high as ten million degrees Celsius in order to fuse in our sun. They have enough energy from the high temperature to overcome their electrical attraction to one another. The attractive nuclear attraction between the nuclei will overcome the electrical repulsion once they are fairly near to one another and enable fusion. To enhance the likelihood of a collision, the nuclei must be restricted inside a narrow area for this to occur. The intense pressure and strong gravity of the sun generate the ideal circumstances for fusion.
The History of Trying to Achieve Nuclear Fusion
Since the 1930s, when the notion of nuclear fusion was first recognized, scientists and, increasingly, engineers have been working to replicate and control it. This is due to the fact that nuclear fusion has the potential to produce practically endless amounts of clean, secure, and cost-effective energy if it can be duplicated on Earth at an industrial scale.
Fission, which is utilized in nuclear power plants, could provide four times as much energy per kilogram of fuel as fusion, and approximately four million times as much energy as burning coal or oil.
The major participating countries declassified fusion research because it had no military use, and collaboration in fusion between the US and USSR started.
Following the development of the laser, other researchers began attempting to heat fuels using a laser in the 1960s in an effort to burn the plasma before it could escape. Its inherent inertia would keep it from moving.
Several billions of dollars have been spent on the tokamak over the last ten years to create bigger and bigger machines. Although significant progress was achieved, the plasmas were still not stable.
Researchers showed that a number of devices, including the plasma focus, initial electrostatic confinement, and field reversed configuration, could, in theory, achieve the high temperatures required for aneutronic fusion during the same time period, despite the very small funding allocated to alternative methods. Such high temperatures were experimentally demonstrated for the first two devices. But because of a lack of funding, growth remained sluggish.
Why is Nuclear Fusion so Important?
Nuclear fusion, like fission, does not release carbon dioxide or other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, so starting in the second part of this century, it may serve as a reliable source of low-carbon power.
With the increasing use of electricity around the world and the increasing world population, this energy source is vital for restoring Earth’s ecosystem. Not only that, but this would also be a more cost-effective energy source, meaning that this could end the energy crisis around the world.