Advances in nuclear fusion could prove to be a powerful source of energy with very few negative environmental consequences. In a historic scientific achievement, a nuclear fusion reaction has generated more energy than put into it. Nuclear fusion is the melding of atomic nuclei that happens inside stars. Employing the power of the stars could radically change our energy equation and expedite the demise of fossil fuels.
Fusion power is the energy generated by nuclear fusion processes. In fusion reactions, two light atomic nuclei fuse to form a heavier nucleus (in contrast with fission power). In doing so they release a comparatively large amount of energy arising from the binding energy due to the strong nuclear force which is manifested as an increase in temperature of the reactants. Fusion power is a primary area of research in plasma physics.
Although scientists have been trying to generate the conditions for nuclear fusion for decades, this is the first time they have succeeded. This achievement opens the door for the possibility that it could be used in power plants.
Researchers at the National Ignition Facility of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in the U.S. fired lasers at coated Deuterium and tritium inside of a compressed cylindrical container to create the high pressures and temperatures needed to get hydrogen atoms to fuse. The reaction generated more energy than was absorbed by the fuel from the lasers (it released 17.3 kilojoules – almost double the amount absorbed by the fuel). The key to this success appears to be subtle changes to the laser pulse.
Researchers have still not reached what is known as “ignition,” the point at which the reaction becomes self-sustaining and energy production increases dramatically. It has been suggested that the pressure needs to be doubled in order for the fuel to achieve ignition.
One of the ways that scientists believe the energy yield may be increased is through a process called, “bootstrapping.” That is where the particles produced by the fusion reaction leave behind energy that heats up and speeds up the reaction of the remaining fuel.
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