Clean Energy – Ignition: A breakthrough has been achieved for nuclear fusion energy

Nuclear fusion has been the promise of clean and almost inexhaustible energy for decades, which today is a little closer to becoming a reality.

Scientists joke that it is ten years before fusion energy becomes viable, and that this has been the case since the 1960s. However, researchers at the National Ignition Facility (NIF) at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) in California, they have good news. A year ago, on August 8, 2021, they registered the first case of ignition, and now they have confirmed their results and published three articles on their advancement involving more than 1,000 authors.

But, what is this ignition?

Nuclear fusion is the energy that powers the Sun and other stars, and basically consists of fusing simple atoms to form more complex elements. Inside the Sun, hydrogen atoms collide with enough force to fuse together to form a helium atom, releasing large amounts of energy as a byproduct. Once the hydrogen plasma “ignites”, the fusion reaction is self-reinforcing, with the fusions themselves producing enough energy to maintain temperature without external heating.

This is ignition in a fusion reaction: that the reaction itself produces enough energy to be self-sustaining. Previously, fusion reactions carried out in the laboratory required large amounts of energy to generate extremely high temperatures, similar to those inside the Sun. The energy produced by the reaction was very small in comparison, which made it impossible to use this process to generate, for example, electricity. The bills didn’t come out.

In fact, if we could harness the fusion reaction to generate electricity, it would be one of the most efficient and least polluting sources of energy. No fossil fuel would be needed, as the only fuel would be hydrogen, which can be extracted from seawater, and the only by-product would be helium, which is used in industry and is actually in short supply.

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In this latest milestone in California, researchers recorded an energy yield of over 1.3 megajoules (MJ) for just a few nanoseconds. For reference, an MJ is the kinetic energy of a one-ton mass moving at 160 km/h. With this, for the first time, the necessary conditions for ignition were reached, that is, enough energy so that, once the reaction started, it could continue on its own.

To achieve ignition, a central “hot spot” of deuterium-tritium fuel (hydrogen atoms with one and two neutrons, respectively) is heated and compressed, creating a super-hot, super-pressurized hydrogen plasma. These high pressures and temperatures were not maintained as the system loses heat over time. However, when ignition is achieved, the absorption of the α particles (two protons and two strongly bound neutrons) created in the fusion process generates energy that exceeds the system losses.

Unfortunately, scientists have yet to replicate this success, but the fact that they have done so shows that it is possible. How long does it take until electricity can be generated with fusion energy? According to experts, ten years.


Three peer-reviewed papers highlight scientific results from the National Ignition Facility’s record yield

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