US Announces “Historic Scientific Achievement” Toward Endless Energy With Nuclear Fusion |  Science

US Announces “Historic Scientific Achievement” Toward Endless Energy With Nuclear Fusion | Science

A group of American scientists has managed to successfully produce a nuclear fusion reaction capable of generating a net gain of energy. The conclusions of the “historic breakthrough”, carried out at a federal facility in California, were presented this Tuesday, amid enormous expectation, by Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm, at a press conference at the Washington headquarters of the department she directs. . With this discovery, the US Government sees the old utopia a source of clean, cheap and potentially inexhaustible energy closer. “One of the most impressive scientific achievements of the 21st century,” Granholm assured in the presentation at a press conference: “This day will end in the history books.”

An experiment with lasers in the US reaches a milestone in the development of a technology to produce clean and almost inexhaustible energy, but the goal is still far away

The researchers have basically achieved a small reaction that provides more energy than it consumes. The experiments have been carried out at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, which houses the National Ignition Facility (NIF). It is a device inaugurated in 2009 that uses the largest laser in the world that, directed at a tiny ball of hydrogen plasma, generates conditions that imitate the explosions of nuclear weapons. The great challenge to generate energy through fusion in which the obtained is greater than the invested in the effort to cause that atomic reaction: in this case, the gain is 50%. The results were obtained last week, on December 5, when 192 laser beams were focused into a spot the size of a popcorn, fleetingly generating the conditions of a three million degree Celsius star, explained Jill Hruby, deputy secretary. of the Nuclear Security of the United States.

Lab director Kim Budil explained that the “quest for fusion ignition over the past decade at NIF was an incredibly ambitious technical aspiration.” “Many said it was not possible. The laser was not powerful enough, the targets would never be precise enough, our modeling and simulation tools were simply not up to the task of this complex physical feat,” she recalled. “Progress has taken time, but it was last August, when we achieved a record output of 1.35 megajoules, which put us at the threshold of ignition, that many began to pay attention,” Budil said. Last week Livermore scientists managed to generate three megajoules of energy using only two, which implies the historic 50% gain.

The implications of this discovery, which the newspaper advanced on Sunday Financial Times, are still to be determined in all their contours, but, according to Granholm, they represent a great step on the path to the creation of unlimited power and zero carbon emissions. It will also make it easier for the United States to maintain its nuclear weapons without the need to test those weapons. That was the primary objective for which the NIF was built, which cost 3,500 million dollars (3,319 million euros). Last year, the Livermore scientists reported a major leap by managing to generate 70% of the energy with which the laser hit the hydrogen target. That burst, something like a miniature hydrogen bomb, only lasted 100 trillionths of a second.

Interior of the chamber where fusion occurs at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.
Interior of the chamber where fusion occurs at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.philip saltonstall

For the better part of the last century, science has spent billions trying to emulate the process that makes the Sun shine to generate a virtually endless source of energy that produces no greenhouse gases like coal or oil. , nor dangerous radioactive waste that takes a very long time to digest, as happens with nuclear power plants. This source of electricity also offers advantages over wind and solar power: it requires fewer resources.

Rumors swirled Monday among physicists and other scientists studying fusion. For them, carbon-free energy is a “holy grail” that they have fantasized about since the 1950s, when the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory was founded. In this time, they had only been able to create fusion reactions that consumed more energy than they were capable of producing. It could still be decades before what was presented this Tuesday in Washington is translated into commercial use, but the Joe Biden Administration has not missed the opportunity to present it as an achievement of its national science.

During the presentation of the results, Granholm assured that this achievement reinforces US national security: “And brings us closer to the generation of energy without carbon cost. Ignition allows us to replicate for the first time some of the conditions found only in the Sun and stars. Today we tell the world that the United States has made an extraordinary discovery, because we invested in it.”

Fusion is achieved when two nuclei combine to form a new one, in a process that occurs naturally in the sun and other stars. To achieve this on Earth it is necessary to generate and maintain a plasma, a gas whose very high temperature creates an environment in which electrons are released from atomic nuclei. Energy is released because the mass of the bound nucleus is less than the mass of its component protons and neutrons; this deficit is converted into energy through the most famous equation in the history of physics, formulated by Einstein: E=mc².

At present, different projects pursue this goal of unlimited energy through nuclear fusion. Science has been cherishing a discovery like the one announced this Tuesday in Washington for years. In February, UK researchers announced that they had more than doubled the previous record for the generation and sustainment of nuclear fusion. They did it in a huge donut-shaped machine equipped with gigantic magnets. They generated a record amount of sustained power. Unfortunately it only lasted 5 seconds. The most relevant in Europe, the ITER project, has plans to jump to the real electricity grid in the medium term.

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