Fusion technology has recently piqued the interest of governments as well as private corporations such as Chevron and Google. Here’s the science of nuclear fusion explained.
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This week, American researchers at the National Ignition Facility, a division of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL), announced a significant advancement in nuclear fusion.
Scientists have successfully generated more energy from a nuclear fusion test than the laser energy that powered it for the first time ever.
The following infographic by Mark Belan and Bruno Venditti of Visual Capitalist explains nuclear fusion and shows how this discovery can lead to the development of a brand-new clean and sustainable energy source in the future.
What is Nuclear Fusion?
The Sun and stars are powered by nuclear fusion, which occurs when intense pressures compress and heat hydrogen plasma to a temperature of around 100 million degrees Celsius. The lighter particles fuse into helium at this temperature, releasing a tremendous amount of energy.
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Given that it does not emit any hazardous gases into the atmosphere and only generates a small amount of radioactive waste with a short half-life, nuclear fusion is a relatively clean energy source.
For roughly 70 years, researchers have been working to create fusion power on Earth utilizing the hydrogen isotopes deuterium and tritium.
Due to the availability of both isotopes—deuterium is found in seawater and tritium is produced by irradiating lithium, a common component of batteries—fusion may one day serve as a significant source of energy.
One liter of water, for instance, contains enough deuterium to generate as much fusion energy as 300 liters of oil when burned.
The main challenge, though, is making sure fusion power plants produce more energy than they use.
The Challenge of Fusion Ignition
Fusion ignition refers to a self-sustaining fusion reaction in which the process produces more energy than it consumes. Until now, researchers could only break even.
To achieve fusion ignition, the National Ignition Facility used a specific configuration known as inertial confinement fusion, which involves bombarding a small pellet of hydrogen plasma with lasers.
According to the US Department of Energy, LLNL’s experiment exceeded the fusion threshold by providing 2.05 megajoules (MJ) of energy to the target, culminating in 3.15 MJ of fusion energy production.
Can Nuclear Fusion Energy Be Commercialized Soon?
Fusion technology has recently piqued the interest of governments as well as private corporations such as Chevron and Google. According to Bloomberg Intelligence, the fusion market will someday be worth $40 trillion.
Fusion is projected to be employed in markets other than energy generation, such as space propulsion, marine propulsion, and medicinal and industrial heat.
However, nuclear fusion energy will not be industrialized for “probably decades,” according to Kim Budil, director of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.
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During the landmark declaration, she stated that “many many fusion ignition events per minute” as well as a “robust system of drivers” were required before fusion could be commercialized effectively.
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