Researchers from the National Ignition Facility at Lawrence Livermore National Lab in California were successful in triggering a fusion reaction that briefly sustained itself. This is a significant feat since fusion requires high temperatures and pressures, which can easily cause it to fail.
Although years away, the ultimate goal is to create power in the same way that the sun produces heat. This can be done by placing hydrogen atoms so close together that they form helium.
More than 100 scientists published four experiments that produced what is known to be a "burning plasma" in Wednesday's Nature journal. Scientists believe they are close to an even greater breakthrough: ignition. These results were added to preliminary results from follow-up experiments announced last August. This is when fuel can "burn" more energy and continue to burn on its own.
Alex Zylstra (study lead author), a Livermore experimental physicist, said that "we're very close" to the next step.
Two types of hydrogen are combined in nuclear fusion. They fuse and produce enormous amounts of energy. A small amount (milligrams), of fuel can also create huge amounts of energy. It's also extremely 'clean' because it doesn't produce radioactive waste," Carolyn Kuranz, an experimental plasma physicist at the University of Michigan, said. She said that it is basically unlimited, clean energy and can be used anywhere.
The technology has been in development for many decades by researchers around the globe. They have tried different approaches and are still working on it. The International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor, which uses massive magnets to control superheated plasma, is a collaboration of 35 countries. It is expected that it will begin operation in 2026.
Steven Cowley, the director of Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory, stated that earlier experiments in the United States were successful in fusing atoms. However, they did not achieve self-heating.
However, don't put your hopes on fusion yet.
Omar Hurricane, study co-author and chief scientist at Lawrence Livermore's Fusion Program, said that the result was "scientifically very exciting for us." "But, we are a long way away from useful energy."
He said it could be for decades.
It has already taken many years to build a laboratory that looks like Star Trek. One Star Trek movie used the lab to create background visuals for Enterprise's engine room. There have been many failed attempts to reach this point. One thing that worked was the increase in size of the fuel capsule. It's now the same size as a BB.
Researchers aim 192 lasers at the capsule to make it fit in a small can of gold metal. The capsule was heated to 100 million degrees. This created about half the pressure as what is inside the sun. Zylstra stated that these experiments produced burning plasmas that lasted only a trillionthof a second but was sufficient to be considered a success.
Zylstra stated that the Nature study's four experiments produced 0.17 megajoules of energy. This is more than any previous attempts but less than one-tenth the power required to initiate the process.
According to a government press release, preliminary results from 2021 experiments pushed energy output up to 1.3 megajoules. They lasted 100 trillionthsof seconds and are still being reviewed. Even that is far from the 1.9 megajoules required to break even.
Cowley from Princeton said that "The main problem with fusion" is its difficulty. "Alternatively, it could be the best way to make energy, sustainable, abundant, safe, and with minimal environmental impact.