WScientists in the USA have made a historic breakthrough in the field of nuclear fusion. For the first time, the fusion of atomic nuclei produced more energy than was consumed, as US Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm announced in Washington on Tuesday. “Put simply, this is one of the most impressive scientific achievements of the 21st century.”
The results, obtained by a team of researchers at the state’s National Ignition Facility (NIF) at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, mark a milestone on the road to unlocking a new energy source. In a few years, nuclear fusion could possibly be used to generate large quantities of electricity in a climate-neutral and safe manner. However, there is still a long way to go before mass production due to the continuing major technical hurdles.
Almost a year ago, advances in nuclear fusion were announced at the institute. A research team reported in the journal “Nature” at the beginning of the year that the ignition of the plasma was achieved. This ultimately results in the fusion reaction becoming self-sustaining. In the nuclear fusion reactor, the fuel is in the form of plasma – this state of aggregation is created when a gas is extremely heated.
Both nuclear power and nuclear fusion derive energy from the binding forces of atomic nuclei. With nuclear power, however, large atoms are split, radioactive waste is produced, among other things, and there is a risk of serious accidents. Nuclear fusion, on the other hand, fuses small atomic nuclei into larger ones, and the technology is considered clean and safe. This form of energy generation is similar to what happens in stars like the sun.
For their experiments, the researchers in California used the world’s most powerful laser system to convert tiny amounts of heavy and superheavy hydrogen (deuterium and tritium) into plasma at a temperature of around one million degrees. Many laser beams heat up the inside of a container a few millimeters in size.