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Haley Zaremba

Haley Zaremba

Haley Zaremba is a writer and journalist based in Mexico City. She has extensive experience writing and editing environmental features, travel pieces, local news in the…

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The Secret To Unlocking The Holy Grail Of Energy

Ah, nuclear fusion. That holy grail of clean energy. For decades, its potential as a near-limitless source of totally green, emissions-free, radioactive nuclear waste-free power has been touted as the next frontier of energy with the potential to save the planet. But it has also become a bit of a joke, as we have never gotten anywhere close to making commercial fusion a reality despite all the pie-in-the-sky rhetoric. Until now. Maybe.

The Los Alamos National Laboratory's Plasma Liner Experiment (PLX) has a completely new approach to nuclear fusion that has to potential to finally bring the stuff of science fiction down to Earth--with an approach ripped right from science fiction, ironically enough. The futuristic project aims to achieve commercial nuclear fusion with the help of 36 plasma guns. “PLX, if it works, will combine two existing methods of slamming single-proton hydrogen atoms together to form two-proton helium atoms. That process generates enormous amounts of energy per speck of fuel, much more than splitting heavy atoms (fission) does,” explains a report by RealClear Science. “The hope is that the method pioneered in PLX will teach scientists how to create that energy efficiently enough to be worthwhile for real-world use. 18 of the 36 plasma guns needed for the project are already in place on the cutting-edge machinery that the PLX project centers around. 

The problem with existing nuclear fusion projects is not that they can’t achieve fusion. The issue is that they require an enormous amount of energy that even surpasses the massive amount of energy that the fusion itself emits. This means, of course, that they are totally inefficient and commercially unviable. This is not for lack of trying. 

There are currently many teams of scientists around the world who are dedicated to making nuclear fusion a reality. As we edge closer and closer to catastrophic climate change, achieving commercial nuclear fusion could be the breakthrough that saves us from going over the greenhouse gas tipping point. 

Related: Protect The Oil: Trump’s Top Priority In The Middle East

The project is more urgent than ever, and the number of recent tech breakthroughs around nuclear fusion reflect that fact. This summer, officials from the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER), a multinational project based in Southern France, announced that they are just six and a half years away from first plasma, meaning that their tokamak could make nuclear fusion could be a reality by 2025. Then, Oak Ridge National Laboratory reported in August that they too had a breakthrough to contribute to the world of nuclear fusion, solving issues of scaling up nuclear fusion experiments and managing plasma thanks to their novel implementation of AI and supercomputing.

And now, there are plasma guns, magnets, and lasers. “The first of the two methods PLX combines is called magnetic confinement,” reports RealClear science. “This is what's used in fusion reactors called tokamaks, which use powerful magnets to suspend the superheated, ultradense plasma of fusing atoms inside the machine so it keeps fusing and doesn't escape [...] The second approach is called inertial confinement.” As an example of this second method, the article goes on to cite the project of another Department of Energy facility called the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, which “has a machine called the National Ignition Facility (NIF) that is taking this route to fusion. The NIF is basically a very big system for firing super powerful lasers at tiny fuel cells containing hydrogen. When the lasers hit the fuel, the hydrogen heats up and, trapped within the fuel cell, fuses. The NIF is operational, but it doesn't generate more energy than it uses.” So we’re back at square one--NIF is just another fusion experiment that consumes as more of more energy than it creates. Related: IEA: An Oil Glut Is Looming

But PLX is different. What is special about PLX’s project, according to a news release from the American Physical Society, is that “the PLX machine combines aspects of both magnetic confinement fusion schemes (e.g. tokamaks) and inertial confinement machines like the National Ignition Facility (NIF). The hybrid approach, although less technologically mature than pure magnetic or inertial confinement concepts, may offer a cheaper and less complex fusion reactor development path.” Furthermore, “the PLX has an additional advantage: Because the fusion fuel and liner are initially injected as a gas, and the plasma guns are located relatively far from the imploding fuel, the machine can be fired rapidly without damage to the machine components or the need for replacement of costly machined targets.”

As the PLX is still not complete--it’s projected to be up and running experiments by late 2020--it is another promising advance in a scientific field that holds enormous potential for energy and for the planet as a whole. While no singular nuclear fusion project is a silver bullet solution yet, the number of breakthroughs instills hope that this once fantastical idea could soon become a reality.

By Haley Zaremba for Oilprice.com

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