Nuclear fusion has the potential to produce enough energy to meet humans’ high demands, so it is understandable why scientists invest a lot of time and money into researching this technology. It is unlikely that we will see this energy resource commercially available any time soon but scientists have announced that they have reached a big milestone in their studies.
Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory researchers have revealed that fuel used to create fusion in their reactor is able to produce more energy than what is required to start fusion.
Fusion works by joining two atoms together. The huge amounts of energy are created when the atoms’ nuclei fuse. We see this in action everyday because the Sun contains a natural fusion reactor deep within its core. The energy it generates provides enough heat and light for life on Earth to exist.
In order to recreate the fusion process, the researchers use a highly complex reactor. 192 lasers are used to heat a cylinder with a 1cm diameter to millions of degrees. Contained within the cylinder is a plastic pellet, which houses two types of hydrogen plasma. When the cylinder reaches the required temperature, it creates x-rays which make the pellet explode, compressing the gas.
The more energy that reaches the hydrogen atoms, then the more fusion occurs and this leads to a chain reaction where the fusion actually becomes self-sustaining. This is called ignition. Although scientists have never been able to reproduce the ignition process, in the journal Nature, the reseachers have outlined how for the first time they been able to get the fuel to produce more energy than it received – up to 2.6 times more energy.
However only 1/200th of the original energy output from the lasers is making it to the hydrogen, so overall the reactor is still losing a lot more energy than it puts out, therefore there is a long way to go for the researchers.
“There is more work to do and physics problems that need to be addressed before we get to the end,” lead author Omar Hurricane said in a release. “But our team is working to address all the challenges, and that’s what a scientific team thrives on.”
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