American government scientists recently declared a breakthrough in nuclear energy production. Apparently, research and ignition laboratories have successfully found a way to generate energy in a faster and cleaner way through nuclear fusion. This is an apparent promise toward a future with unlimited energy and electricity fueling the whole world with minimal to no impact on the environment and a better world for future generations.
“Today you will witness the birth of a new fusion-based energy source. Safe, renewable energy and cheap electricity for everyone. The power of the sun in the palm of my hand.” Movie and comic nerds will already know, this is an excerpt from the monologue of one of cinema’s greatest villains, Dr. Octavious from Spiderman 2. Back in 2004, this was a science fiction concept. But recently, on 13 December 2022, the US Department of Energy declared that they reached a new milestone in energy generation. The announcement states that the National Ignition Facility at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory achieved some kind of ignition in nuclear fusion a few weeks prior to the announcement. This ignition is being referred to as the new step toward a fossil fuel-free energy source. In fact, it is being hailed as a ‘revolution’ in clean energy research. What exactly does it mean regarding energy production and the future of the industry? Does this mean we’ll obtain a virtually unending energy source to fuel the whole world’s needs?
Realistically, we are still generations away from using this method of nuclear fusion to generate applicable energy or electric power on a grand scale. Researchers are still very early in the process. It’s only natural to wonder, then, what exactly is going on in the field of nuclear fusion. Why is it already being hailed as a breakthrough and how does it work?
Nuclear fusion is technically one of the most common phenomena in the natural world. It occurs on a regular basis in the sun and other stars. In this process, two small atomic nuclei are joined or fused together to make a larger one. Scientists from the Livermore National Laboratory successfully replicated this process by using lasers. They converged 192 lasers on a target the size of a peppercorn and heated it up to a temperature of 3 million degrees celsius, briefly simulating the conditions of the sun.
This ignition successfully produced more energy than it consumed. The input energy delivered 2.05 megajoules and resulted in 3.15 megajoules of fusion energy output. This was achieved in less time than it takes for light to travel an inch, polishing up a possible new
way to generate power in nuclear power plants. Currently, power plants use nuclear fission to generate energy which is the reverse process of fusion – where one large atom’s nucleus is split into two smaller ones. Fusion is more energy efficient because it yields much more energy with minimal waste production. In fusion, the total mass of the new nucleus is much lower than the ones being fused and the rest of the mass is converted to energy, as explained in Albert Einstein’s famous equation for mass-energy equivalence, E=mc2. There are seemingly several ways to boot up a nuclear fusion process, but research shows that the most efficient ingredient is the fusion between deuterium and tritium atoms. This fusion reaction requires about 39 million degrees celsius and can produce 1.6 million electron volts of energy. Deuterium is an isotope of hydrogen. It is in abundance due to the vast resource of seawater. Calculations show that through nuclear fusion using deuterium, a gallon of seawater can produce as much energy as 300 gallons of petrol.
As fascinating as all that may sound, there are still plenty of challenges to overcome before nuclear fusion becomes the mainstream source of energy. It may be an easy feat on the sun, but we don’t have the right gravitational and temperature conditions on earth. While the 3.15 megajoules of fusion energy output might seem like a lot, it is only about 0.875-kilowatt hours of heat and 0.3 kilowatts of electricity. A typical rooftop solar panel can generate 5000 times more power annually.
Moreover, energy revenue becomes a more serious issue when you factor in all the energy required to run the whole facility. The 192 lasers used in this experiment take up about 400 megajoules when blasting on the pallet, add that to the energy required to run the rest of the project and the national ignition facility itself is unable to balance the total energy used and the total energy produced in this fusion experiment. To top it all off, there is also the energy required to construct the facility and to put up and run all the equipment. For example, regarding the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor that is being built in Cadarache, France, just the tokamak reactor itself is said to weigh equal to three Eiffel Towers. So evidently, fusion reactions are consuming far more energy than they are generating.
Even when the energy input and output factors are ignored there are still many challenges to bringing nuclear fusion as a source of energy production. It should be clear that the test conducted at the national ignition facility was an experimental approach that had a single successful test run. To bring this experimental setup into an industry standard is no small feat. To produce enough electricity for global consumption multiple fusion reactions should occur every second of every minute of every day. Moreover, the lasers emitted energy for a nanosecond and that required a massive explosion that generated 3 million degrees celsius worth of heat. These blasts cause excessive debris that could affect the fusion reaction in dangerous ways. The pallets would also have to be replaced with complete precision. All of these are extremely difficult to overcome as of now.
If all these were to be resolved somehow, fuel procurement would still be an issue. As discussed deuterium might be abundantly available in nature. But tritium is quite scarce and can burn through pretty quickly as it has a half-life of only 12 years. Artificially generating tritium is also quite difficult. The final herculean labour would be turning it into an economically viable method.
Lastly, there is always the imminent fear that such an efficient method of generating power could be used with the wrong intentions and newer, more powerful nuclear weapons could drag in a new threat to world peace and humanity. In fact, the National Ignition Facility’s chief purpose isn’t generating electricity in the first place. It was built up as an attempt to get nuclear weapons labs the right to test their weapons. The main purpose of the National Ignition Facility is to give weapons designers and providers a better understanding of the science behind fusion and nuclear energy.
So in clear understanding, the breakthrough in nuclear fusion isn’t exactly a breakthrough yet. It is only the beginning of the first step towards planning for a better, cleaner energy source with minimal wastage, comparable to using sticks and stones to make flames. In a way, it can be called more of a ‘push-through.’ But it does give us the dream of a world with unlimited energy and no electricity bills, which will lead to a cleaner and greener Earth despite the imminent threat of a nuclear apocalypse.