The decades-long dream of scientists to replicate the reaction of nuclear fusion of hydrogen atoms in the Sun just took a major step toward reality after U.S. scientists came close to triggering ignition for the first time ever.
The milestone in nuclear fusion research gives hope to scientists around the world that nuclear fusion can be achieved on Earth after decades of experiments. The breakthrough also makes researchers and energy enthusiasts hopeful that humanity could be on the cusp of achieving clean, safe, zero-waste energy that would help advance the world's ambitions to reach net-zero emissions.
Although nuclear fusion has been long recognized as totally carbon- and by-product-free and the source atoms in hydrogen are abundant on Earth, replicating the Sun's natural processes of fusion energy generation on Earth has been a challenge. That's because this fusion needs to take place at extremely high temperatures that create hot plasma and because researchers have struggled to obtain more energy from those plasmas than the energy input to run them.
Earlier this month, U.S. scientists said they were at the threshold of fusion ignition after achieving a large amount of energy in an experiment at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) in California.
The amount of energy achieved was still lower than the input energy, but the fact that ignition was achieved for the first time ever is a "momentous step" in nuclear fusion research, scientists say.
"This result is a historic step forward for inertial confinement fusion research, opening a fundamentally new regime for exploration and the advancement of our critical national security missions," said LLNL Director Kim Budil.
Physicists at the Imperial College London are already helping to analyze the data from the successful experiment at the LLNL, which has produced more energy than any previous inertial confinement fusion experiment. The U.S. scientists proved that ignition—a key process that amplifies the energy output from nuclear fusion—is possible, paving the way for reactions that produce more energy than they need to get started, Imperial College London said in a statement.
The energy output of the LLNL experiment was over one mega-joule, which marks one of the agreed thresholds for the onset of ignition and is six times the previous highest energy achieved.
"This phenomenal breakthrough brings us tantalisingly close to a demonstration of 'net energy gain' from fusion reactions – just when the planet needs it," Dr Arthur Turrell from the Department of Physics at Imperial, said in a statement.
"The pace of improvement in energy output has been rapid, suggesting we may soon reach more energy milestones, such as exceeding the energy input from the lasers used to kick-start the process," said Professor Jeremy Chittenden, Co-director of the Centre for Inertial Fusion Studies at Imperial.
"Controlled fusion in the laboratory is one of the defining scientific grand challenges of this era and this is a momentous step forward," Chittenden added.
Scientists believe that the success of the LLNL experiment will encourage more experiments with various stages of nuclear fusion, which could ultimately lead to achieving a net energy gain from a self-sustained fusion reaction.
"The extraordinary energy release achieved will embolden nuclear fusion efforts the world over, lending momentum to a trend that was already well underway," Dr. Arthur Turrell said.
Many experiments and laboratories, as well as private start-ups, are already looking to test stages and components of a nuclear fusion reaction.
More breakthroughs will be needed in the coming years and decades for an actual reaction to take place and produce more energy than it consumes. Yet, the dream of achieving infinite clean and safe energy is now more alive than ever.
By Tsvetana Paraskova for Oilprice.com
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