The U.S. fusion energy breakthrough: Everything you need to know

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On Tuesday, the Department of Energy is expected to announce a long-awaited milestone in the development of nuclear fusion power: a net energy gain. The news, first reported by the Financial Times and confirmed by The Washington Post, could spur the fusion community, which has long promoted the technology as a potential clean energy tool to combat climate change.

But how big of a deal is the “net energy gain” anyway – and what does it mean for future fusion power plants? Here’s what you need to know.

existing nuclear power plants work Fragmentation — splitting of heavy atoms to produce energy. In fission, a neutron hits a heavy uranium atom, splitting it into lighter atoms and releasing a lot of heat and energy at the same time.

Fusion, on the other hand, works in the opposite way – it involves fusing two atoms (often two hydrogen atoms) together to form a new element (often helium)., In the same way that stars produce energy. In that process, the two hydrogen atoms lose a small amount of mass, which is converted into energy according to Einstein’s famous equation E=mc². because the speed of light is very, very fast – 300,000,000 meters per second – even the loss of a tiny amount of mass can yield a ton of energy.

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What is “net energy gain” and how did researchers find it?

Up to this point, researchers have been able to successfully fuse two hydrogen atoms together, but they have always required more energy to cause the reaction to occur. Net energy gain – where they get back more energy than they put in to create the reaction – has been the elusive holy grail of fusion research.

Now, researchers at the National Ignition Facility at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California are expected to announce that they have achieved a net energy gain by shooting lasers at hydrogen atoms. 192 The laser beam shrinks hydrogen atoms to about 100 times the density of lead and heats them to about 100 million degrees Celsius. Due to the high density and temperature, the atoms merge into helium.

Other methods being researched include using magnets to confine the superhot plasma.

“If this is what we’re expecting, it’s like a Kitty Hawk moment for the Wright brothers,” said Melanie Windridge, plasma physicist and CEO of Fusion Energy Insights. “It’s like a plane taking off.”

Does this mean that fusion energy is ready for prime time?

No. The scientists refer to the current breakthrough as a “scientific net energy gain”—meaning that more energy came out of the reaction than was input by the laser. This is a huge milestone which has never been achieved before.

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But this is only net energy gain on a microscopic level. The lasers used at the Livermore lab are only about 1 percent efficient, according to Troy Carter, a plasma physicist at the University of California, Los Angeles. This means that it takes about 100 times more energy to drive lasers than they are capable of ultimately delivering hydrogen atoms.

So researchers still have to reach “engineering net energy gain,” or the point at which the entire process takes up less energy than is output by the reaction. They also have to figure out how to turn the output energy – currently in the form of kinetic energy from helium nuclei and neutrons – into a form that is usable for electricity. They could do that by converting it into heat, then heating the steam to turn a turbine and drive a generator. There are also efficiency limits to that process.

This means that the energy gains would probably need to be pushed much higher for fusion to be truly commercially viable.

For the time being, even researchers can only do fusion reactions once a day. In between, they have to allow the lasers to cool down and replace the fusion fuel targets. a commercially viable plant would need to be able to do this several times per second, says Dennis Whyte, director of the Plasma Science and Fusion Center at MIT. “Once you’ve got the scientific feasibility,” he said, “you have to figure out the engineering feasibility.”

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What are the advantages of fusion?

The possibilities of fusion are huge. technology is much safer than nuclear Fragmentation, because fusion cannot create rapid reactions. It also doesn’t produce radioactive by-products that need to be stored, or harmful carbon emissions; It produces only inert helium and one neutron. And we are unlikely to run out of fuel: the only fuel for fusion is heavy hydrogen atoms, which can be found in seawater.

When can fusion really power our homes?

That’s the trillion-dollar question. For decades, scientists have joked that fusion is always 30 or 40 years away; Over the years, researchers have variously predicted that fusion plants will be operational in the 90s, 2000s, 2010s and 2020s. Current fusion experts argue that it is not a matter of timing, but of will – if governments and private donors aggressively finance fusion, they say, a prototype fusion power plant should be available in the 2030s. Could

“The timeline isn’t really a question of timing,” Carter said. “It’s a question of innovating and trying.”

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