Science & Technology

US Department of Energy announces breakthrough in nuclear fusion, sets path to clean energy source

The Department of Energy expects the private sector to enter the arena and provide the necessary support

By Rohini Krishnamurthy
Published: Tuesday 13 December 2022
US Secretary for the Department of Energy Jennifer Granholm makes the announcement on the nuclear fusion breakthrough _

Researchers from the United States have scripted history by achieving a major step in recreating the sun’s power on Earth — nuclear fusion, the United States Department of Energy announced December 13, 2022.

Nuclear fusion occurs when two hydrogen atoms fuse to form heavier helium and release energy.

This milestone by the US researchers follows six decades of efforts to achieve ignition, meaning the energy produced should exceed the energy consumed.

The Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, a federal research facility in California, produced 3 Megajoules (MJ) of energy from an input of 2 MJ at its National Ignition Facility (NIF), a laser-based research device.

Last week, for the first time, they designed this experiment so that it ignited and produced more energy than the laser had deposited, Marvin Adams, The National Nuclear Security Administration Deputy Administrator for Defense Programs, explained.

“Energy production took less time than it took light to travel one inch,” he highlighted.

The process does not emit carbon dioxide or other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, paving the way for tapping into nuclear fusion as a clean energy source in the future.

But commercialisation of the technology could take a few more decades, experts said at the press conference.

The NIF directed 192 laser beams towards a fusion target measuring the size of a peppercorn.

It heated a capsule of the two isotopes of hydrogen — deuterium and tritium — to over 3 million degrees Celsius. These conditions are possible only in the centre of stars.

In August 2021, the NIF produced 1.35 (MJ) energy. This put at us the threshold of ignition, Kim Budil, Director at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, noted.

“Ignition is the first step and sets the stage for a transformation decade in high energy density science and fusion research,” she added.

Arati Prabhakar, White House Office of Science and Technology Policy Director, described this milestone as a scientific milestone and an engineering marvel.

The Department of Energy expects the private sector to enter the arena and provide the necessary support.

The private sector is already showing interest in fusion research. Companies have raised over $100 million each for fusion research, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency.

More work is needed to commercialise the technology. Budil said they would have to produce many fusion ignition events per minute. “It could probably take a few decades to put us in a position of a power plant,” she added.

They also plan to upgrade the technology while looking at ways to make the process simpler and repeatable, Budil noted.

In addition to NIF’s laser-based device for nuclear fusion, the world is also looking at magnetic fusion energy.

It involves using strong magnetic fields to confine plasma at high temperatures and pressures. Under extreme temperatures, gas becomes plasma — the fourth state of matter.

Earlier this year, in February 2022, the UK-based Culham Centre for Fusion Energy’s nuclear fusion reactor consumed about 0.17 mg of tritium-deuterium to produce nearly 12 megawatts (MW) of energy over five seconds.

 “In comparison, fossil fuels would have required 10 million times more fuel to generate the same amount of energy, that is about 1.06 kg of natural gas or 3.9 kg of lignite coal,” Athina Kappatou, a physicist at Germany’s Max Planck Institute of Plasma Physics, who was a part of the team, previously told Down To Earth.

Further, the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) is expected to produce nuclear fusion in 2035. It aims to produce 500 MW of energy from an input of 50 MW of heat.

Magnetic fusion works at low pressure and density and for a long time. In contrast, laser high works at high pressure and density for a short time. Fundamental concepts are quite different, Bidel said.

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