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The United States will announce a “breakthrough” on fusion energy

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The U.S. Department of Energy is expected to announce on Tuesday that its scientists were able to engineer a nuclear fusion reaction that produced more energy than it consumed, a landmark achievement in decades-long research from a way to generate clean, waste-free nuclear energy. Powerful.

The impending announcement, first reported by the FinancialTimes and later confirmed by other media organizations, will identify the National Ignition Facility (NIF) at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California as the site of the experiment.

On Monday, the department announced that Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm would announce “a major scientific breakthrough” at a press conference on Tuesday.

The announcement comes at a time when the Biden administration has stepped up efforts and funding for the development of clean energy generation, with a particular focus on fusion energy. The recently passed Inflation Reduction Act provided significant funding for research in this area.

Just because scientists have been able to engineer a positive-energy fusion reaction doesn’t mean significant changes in the way humans generate energy are on the horizon. Experts said while the work is important, daunting technological barriers remain in the way of systems that could deploy fusion power at scale.

A long trip

Scientists have long known that when two atoms are fused together to form a new element, large amounts of energy are released. The sun, for example, is essentially a huge fusion reactor in which superheated particles come together with tremendous force, forming new particles and releasing the excess energy as heat.

As early as the 1940s, scientists began experimenting with fusion reactors. While they have long been capable of generating fusion reactions, until now these reactions have always required inputs of energy that exceeded the amount they ultimately produced.

The reason a net positive fusion reaction has been so elusive is largely because scientists must generate extreme conditions in the lab for the reactions to occur. Typically, huge lasers are used to heat hydrogen isotopes to temperatures on the order of millions of degrees Celsius. The resulting plasma is then confined under extremely high pressure, causing the isotopes to come together with enough force to fuse into a different element, releasing energy as heat as they do.

An important part of Tuesday’s announcement will be how the government defines a “net positive” energy outcome. Typically, this means that the measured reaction produced more energy than the laser beams directed at the hydrogen. However, the lasers used in the experiment are far from perfectly efficient, meaning that it takes more energy to power them than they ultimately deliver to their targets.

For a fusion reaction to be “significantly positive” in the sense of generating more energy than the total energy put into the experiment – including the waste – the reaction would have to produce substantially more energy than was consumed by laser beams directed at hydrogen.

Huge engineering challenges

Maintaining equipment that can tolerate such extreme temperatures is extremely difficult, and finding a way to create reactors that can tolerate the stresses involved in the process for long periods of time is one of the many challenges facing researchers in the field. .

Ian H. Hutchinson, professor of nuclear science and engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said it was important not to read too much into the preliminary reports, noting that before the official announcement few details about what , precisely, the NIF scientists reached was known.

“This appears to be significant scientific confirmation of inertial fusion ignition, but I would hesitate to call it a ‘breakthrough,'” Hutchinson said in an email exchange with VOA. “The NIF program is not about fusion energy production but about understanding fusion explosions. Generating useful energy from miniature fusion explosions still faces enormous engineering challenges, and we don’t know if these challenges can be overcome.”

The NIF is most closely associated with the United States’ nuclear weapons program, and its primary purpose is to recreate small-scale, controllable nuclear explosions, allowing the nation’s nuclear arsenal to be maintained without the need for testing. large-scale destroyers.

Benefits of merging

There are several reasons why scientists have spent so many years looking for a way to make fusion reactors viable energy sources.

If fusion reactors were to replace fossil fuels as an energy source, it would dramatically reduce the amount of carbon released into the atmosphere, reducing a source of global warming.

Unlike fission reactors, which use highly enriched radioactive materials like uranium and plutonium as fuel, fusion reactors can theoretically be powered by hydrogen, the most abundant element in the universe, which means that the fuel supply of a fusion reactor is essentially infinite.

Also, unlike fission reactors, fusion reactors do not produce highly radioactive waste, eliminating the need to safely store materials that will continue to be hazardous, in some cases, for thousands of years. .

Finally, despite the extreme conditions under which fusion occurs, fusion reactors are considered safer to operate than fission reactors, which must be continuously monitored to avoid conditions leading to destabilization and blast. In the two worst nuclear disasters in history, explosions at nuclear facilities in Chernobyl in the Soviet Union in 1986 and Fukushima in Japan in 2011 forced the evacuation of thousands of people and rendered large swathes of both countries uninhabitable.

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