Nuclear Fusion Breakthrough

In science, there has recently been a breakthrough on creating energy. The Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory was able to prove this about a month ago. They used the world’s largest lasers that forced hydrogen atoms to fuse together in the same type of energy producing reason that the sun produces. If nuclear fusion became our commercial power one day, the Earth would have endless, carbon-free, clean energy to use.


Nuclear power plants today are based on nuclear fission, which is the splitting of uranium-235. It’s like “shooting a tiny bullet at the center of the isotope, which causes it to become unstable and split. When it splits, it released a tremendous amount of energy that can be turned into electricity. The downside to this method though, is that the byproducts are highly radioactive that are long-lasting.


Nuclear fusion is forcing smaller isotopes together to form larger ones. The lab used hydrogen atoms- the smallest element- to form helium. This reaction releases more energy than nuclear fission and it doesn’t produce any long-term radioactive byproducts, it is a clean energy source.


The only issue is that these isotopes are very resistant to fusing.


This laboratory had been trying to do this for 13 years. The lasers in the lab were first built for the goal of creating extreme conditions not on our planet, but other planets such as the center of giant planets or the sun. It was also used to study operating nuclear weapons.


This fusion reaction made history because they ignited a fusion reaction that puts out more energy than the lasers put in.


Tammy Ma explains that for this fusion to occur, they had to get conditions hotter and denser than the sun to go into only 2 atoms. She also explains that the target of this fusion could be larger than 2 hydrogen atoms, but the lasers would need to be even bigger.


Currently, they are working to make this fusion even bigger- by trying to turn this into electrical power. Today’s nuclear plants do the opposite, they split atoms apart.


The scientists take around 1 shot per day to try to get their first ignition to a powerplant. Theoretically if this was for a commercial power plant, they would need around 10 shots per second. That would mean getting the gain out of the targets to increase to about a factor of 100.


There are also diamond shells to make around the atom- they currently make 1,500 a year, and only make 150 perfect ones. For a commercial power plant, they would need 900,000 perfect shells per day.


President Biden’s goal was to have commercial power plants in a decade, but scientists are concerned with this goal. They put in 300 units of energy and 3 came out. Charles Seife says “I don’t wanna diminish the fact that this is a real achievement… I’m afraid that there are so many technical hurdles, even after this great achievement- that ten years is a pipe dream”.


There has been more than 30 private companies trying to undergo various approaches to this new fusion power- including using magnets and not lasers. Bill gates and Google have betted into these companies, $3 billion.


Kim Budil believes they can get to this step again, trying into the next month. If there is enough funding and dedication to get this fusion breakthrough, then she believes it could be shown in the next 20 years. Either way, this small breakthrough proves that fusion power is possible, and is the start to commercial fusion power.