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Nuclear fusion is rather different from nuclear fission. Fission, is the reaction currently used in nuclear power plants, and produces dangerously radioactive elements; fusion is the currently being researched by various laboratories around the world, and produces no radioactive waste and far more energy.
For years nuclear fusion has eluded scientists, yet very recently the researchers at the National Ignition Facility (NIF) in the US have managed to pass a milestone that brings fully sustainable nuclear fusion closer realisation.
The NIF, at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, uses 192 beams of the world’s most powerful lasers to deliver a pulse of energy 1000 times the capacity of the entire generating capacity of all power plants in the US combined. The pulse hits a tiny capsule of hydrogen which is then instantly compressed and heated up, creating a small nuclear fusion reaction.
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Inside the target Chamber at the National Ignition Facility (NIF).
The BBC reports that in September the amount of energy released from the fusion reaction at the NIF was recorded as higher than the energy that was absorbed by the hydrogen fuel pellet. The first time that this has been achieved anywhere in the world.
Ed Moses, the principal associate director for NIF, said that “the 13 August firing of NIF's 192-beam laser yielded 3 × 1015 neutrons, whose total energy reached 8 kilojoules. That output was nearly twice the 5 kJ of energy that produced the plasma in the peppercorn-sized sphere of fusion fuel.
The result puts NIF a factor of four to five away from ignition.”
Unfortunately, due to inefficiencies in the system only about 10-20 percent of the energy entered into the lasers actually reaches the capsule, so the lab is still some way off true ignition (when the nuclear fusion reaction generates more energy than supplied to the lasers); but this achievement is still proof that they are moving in the right direction.
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Moses said that “one to two more kilojoules reaching the plasma from the laser should be enough to yield the 15 kJ of fusion energy,” needed to achieve ignition. This means that improving the efficiency of the system is vital.
Despite the inability to reach full ignition, the BBC still claim that this is the most important breakthrough for fusion in years, and proof that it is only a matter of time before the NIF meets its goal.
The researchers at the laboratory will surely take this achievement as encouragement to continue in their research, and other experiments into nuclear fusion around the world will also be buoyed by the news.
Along with the NIF, another of the major fusion projects is the multi-billion-euro ITER facility in France. Whereas the NIF uses lasers to compress and heat the pellet, the ITER facility uses powerful magnetic fields, known as magnetic confinement.
By. Joao Peixe of Oilprice.com
Joao is a writer for Oilprice.com