But how big a deal is a “net gain” anyway – and what does it mean for the integrated energy industry of the future? Here’s what you need to know.
Nuclear power plants are currently in operation fission – break apart heavy atoms energetically. In fission, neutrons and heavy uranium atoms fall apart, splitting them into lighter atoms and releasing a lot of heat and energy at the same time.
Fusion, on the other hand, works the other way around – it involves fusing two atoms (usually two hydrogen atoms) together to create a new element (usually helium), in the same way that stars produce energy. In the process, the two hydrogen atoms lose some mass, which is converted into energy according to Einstein’s famous symbol, E=mc². Because the speed of light is fast fast fast – 300,000,000 meters per second – even a small amount of loss can cause a lot of power.
What is “net profit,” and how did the researchers get it?
Until now, researchers have been able to bond two hydrogen atoms together successfully, but it often takes more energy to make the reaction than they do back. The net energy benefit – where they get more energy than they put in to create the reaction – has been the holy grail of connection research.
Now, researchers at the National Ignition Facility at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California hope to announce that they have achieved net energy gains by firing lasers at hydrogen atoms. 192 lasers compress hydrogen atoms down to about 100 times the density of lead and heat them to about 100 million degrees Celsius. The high density and temperature causes the atoms to condense into helium.
Other research methods include the use of magnets to confine superhot plasma.
“If it’s what we expect, it’s like the Kitty Hawk era for the Wright brothers,” said Melanie Windridge, a plasma scientist and president of Fusion Energy Insights. “It’s like a plane taking off.”
Does this mean that fusion power is ready for prime time?
No. Scientists refer to the current progress as “energy science science” – which means that more energy comes out of the reaction than the laser put in. That is a great sign that has never been achieved before.
But it is only a net gain energy at the micro level. The laser used in the Livermore lab is only about 1 percent efficient, said Troy Carter, a plasma scientist at the University of California, Los Angeles. That means it takes about 100 times more energy to run lasers than they are able to deliver to hydrogen atoms.
Therefore, researchers have yet to reach “net energy access,” or the point where the entire process consumes less energy than the resulting reaction. They will also find out how to convert the energy produced – currently in the form of energy from helium nuclei and neutrons – into a form that can be used for electricity. They can do that by converting it to heat, then heat the steam to turn a turbine and run a furnace. The system is also very efficient.
All of that means that the power value will need to be pushed very, very high for the merger to be commercially viable.
Meanwhile, researchers can only do the reaction once a day. Between them, they will allow lasers to cool down and replace the target of fusion fuel. A plant that can be traded will be able to do so many times every second, said Dennis Whyte, director of the Plasma Science and Fusion Center at MIT. “Once you get a science degree, you’ll find that you’ll be able to do engineering,” he said.
What are the benefits of mixing?
The possibilities of Fusion are huge. Great technology, much safer than nuclear fission, since the mixture cannot produce a reaction. It does not produce radioactive materials that need to be stored, or harmful carbon emissions; it produces inert helium and neutrons. We will never run out of oil: the only fuel used to bind together is heavy hydrogen atoms, which can be found in sea water.
When can fusion really make our homes stronger?
That’s the billion dollar question. For decades, scientists have joked that compounds are always 30 or 40 years old; Over the years, researchers have made various predictions that hybrid plants will work in the 90s, 2000s, 2010s, and 2020s. The experts who join now argue that it is not time, but a matter of will – if the government and donors invest aggressively, they say, industrial facilities may exist in the 2030s.
“The schedule is not really a question of time,” Carter said. “It’s a question of innovation and effort.”
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