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19th Aug 2022

Scientists make nuclear fusion breakthrough that could completely transform energy around the world

Charlie Herbert

nuclear fusion

We’re a step closer to harnessing the power of the Sun

Three new studies have revealed that in August last year, scientists took a huge step towards proving that controlled nuclear fusion is achievable on Earth.

On August 8, 2021, scientists pumped the power and force of 192 laser beams into a small gold-lined capsule. For a fraction of a second, this ignited the same thermonuclear fire that powers the Sun.

The experiment was carried out by the National Ignition Facility at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, with the results recently published in three new papers in Physical Review Letters and Physical Review E.

Researchers believe the results of the experiment show they achieved “ignition,” which would be a major development in nuclear power. This is the point where the energy released from the reaction is greater than the energy required to generate it.

So in theory, the reaction would be self-sustaining, just like it is in stars.

In stars, hydrogen atoms are thrown together, creating helium and a huge amount of energy. This is what makes them burn.

However, it is incredibly difficult to create artificially in a laboratory as it requires an incredibly high-energy environment is needed to ensure the reaction continues.

Currently, nuclear power plants use nuclear fission to create power, which is done by splitting the nuclei of heavy elements such as uranium.

But if we were able to harness nuclear fusion, this process would produce abundant energy and would only require hydrogen as fuel whilst only producing helium as a waste. Crucially this would remove the risk of meltdowns or radiation.

Being able to create a fusion reactor is still a long way off, and the definitions of what constitutes “ignition” vary. But this could be a key development in being able to control that power.

Uncontrolled fusion is what takes place in thermonuclear weapon explosions.

The reaction released 1.3 megajoules of energy for 100 trillionths of a second.

Omar Hurricane, chief scientist for Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory’s inertial confinement fusion program, said: “The record shot was a major scientific advance in fusion research, which establishes that fusion ignition in the lab is possible at NIF.”

He added: “Achieving the conditions needed for ignition has been a long-standing goal for all inertial confinement fusion research and opens access to a new experimental regime where alpha-particle self-heating outstrips all the cooling mechanisms in the fusion plasma.”

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