June 17, 2024

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US Fusion Energy Breakthrough: Everything You Need to Know


On Tuesday, the Energy Department is expected to announce a long-awaited milestone in nuclear fusion energy development: net energy gains. The news, which I reported for the first time financial times and confirmed it Washington Postcould galvanize the fusion community, which has long exaggerated the technology as a potential clean energy tool to combat climate change.

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

Existing nuclear power plants run through nuclear fission Breaking down heavy atoms to generate energy. In the case of fission, a neutron collides with a heavy uranium atom, splitting it into lighter atoms and releasing a lot of heat and energy at the same time.

On the other hand, fusion works the opposite way – it involves smashing two atoms (mostly two hydrogen atoms) together to create a new element (mostly helium).And the In the same way that stars generate energy. In the 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 Very fast – 300,000,000 meters per second – even a tiny amount of mass can produce a ton of energy.

What is a “net energy gain” and how did the researchers achieve it?

Up to this point, researchers have been able to successfully fuse two hydrogen atoms together, but the reaction always requires more energy than you get back. Net energy gain—where they take back more energy than they put into creating the reaction—has been the elusive holy grail of fusion research.

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Now, researchers at the National Ignition Facility at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California are expected to announce that they’ve achieved a net energy gain by shooting lasers at hydrogen atoms. The 192 lasers compress hydrogen atoms to nearly 100 times the density of lead and heat them to nearly 100 million degrees Celsius. The high density and temperature cause the atoms to fuse into helium.

Other methods being investigated include the use of magnets to constrain superheated plasma.

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

Does this mean fusion energy is ready for prime time?

No, the scientists refer to the current breakthrough as a “scientific net energy gain” — meaning more energy came out of the reaction than was put in by the laser. This is a huge milestone that has not been achieved before.

But it’s just a net energy gain at the micro level. According to Troy Carter, a plasma physicist at the University of California, Los Angeles, the lasers used in the Livermore lab have an efficiency of just 1 percent. This means that powering the laser takes 100 times more energy than it can eventually deliver to the hydrogen atoms.

So the researchers have yet to reach the “net engineering energy gain,” or the point at which the entire process consumes less energy than the reaction produces. They would also have to figure out how to convert the resulting energy — currently in the form of kinetic energy from helium nuclei and neutrons — into a form that can be used for electricity. They could do this by converting it into heat, then heating the steam to drive a turbine and power a generator. This process also has efficiency limitations.

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All of this means that energy gain probably needs to be pushed much higher for a merger to be commercially viable.

For now, the researchers can also perform the fusion reaction once per day. In between, they must allow the laser to cool and replace the fusion fuel target. A commercially viable plant should be able to do this multiple times per secondsays Dennis White, director of the Center for Plasma and Fusion Sciences at MIT. He said, “Once you have the scientific feasibility, you have to know the engineering feasibility.”

What are the benefits of integration?

Huge Fusion possibilities. The technology is much safer than nuclear technology nuclear fission, because fusion cannot create wild reactions. Nor do they produce radioactive by-products that must be stored or harmful carbon emissions; It simply produces inert helium and a neutron. Nor is it likely to run out of fuel: fusion fuel is just heavy hydrogen atoms, which can be found in seawater.

When can fusion power our homes?

This is a trillion dollar question. For decades, scientists have joked that a merger is always 30 or 40 years away. Over the years, researchers have variously predicted that fusion plants will be operational in the 1990s, 2000s, 2000s, and 2020s. Current fusion experts argue it’s not a matter of time, but of will — if governments and private donors aggressively fund fusion, they say, a prototype fusion power plant could be available in the 2030s.

“The schedule is not really a matter of time,” Carter said. “It’s a matter of innovation and effort.”

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