Scientists at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (USA) have achieved a breakthrough in the thermonuclear energy. They have managed to achieve thermonuclear ignition, which is a self-sustaining thermonuclear fusion reaction; it actually produces more energy than is used to start that reaction.
A few days ago, it became known that on December 5, specialists at the National Ignition Facility of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) conducted the first ever successful scientific experiment of controlled thermonuclear fusion and achieved a reaction with a positive energy output. Now this information has been officially confirmed.
The US Department of Energy and the National Nuclear Security Administration call these researchers' achievement a scientific breakthrough they've sought for decades.
Nuclear fusion is an energy-releasing reaction that combines simple atomic nuclei into more complex nuclei—for example, hydrogen atoms combine to form helium. Nuclear fusion takes place, for example, in the cores of stars; huge amounts of molecular dust collapse under the influence of gravity and create enormous pressure and heat in the cores of newborn stars.
As Space.com reports, scientists have been studying nuclear fusion for decades, seeing it as the future of sustainable energy production. Back in the 1960s, US scientists proposed using lasers to initiate the synthesis reaction; they explained that with their help it would be possible to create the pressure and temperature necessary to start the reaction. This method was called “inertial controlled thermonuclear fusion.”
Almost 60 years have passed since then, and only now have scientists at the LLNL managed to take a real step toward creating energy-generating "stars" inside reactors here on Earth.
Scientists at the LLNL used the world's most powerful laser machine. Part of this equipment can be seen in the photo below; it will not fit in all in one photo because it is the size of a stadium. The device uses 192 powerful laser beams to create temperatures and pressures similar to those found in the cores of stars and giant planets.
During the experiment, the equipment delivered 2.05 MJ of energy to the small capsule with fuel, whereas 3.15 MJ of energy was obtained as a result of the reaction. In other words, at the end of the reaction, it was possible to obtain more than one and a half times more energy than was used on starting the reaction.
To carry out the fusion ignition, the fuel capsule was placed (the photo below) in a small chamber where laser radiation is converted into X-rays in the walls. They compress the fuel until it explodes, creating a plasma of high temperature and pressure.
In recent years, the scientists of the aforesaid laboratory have made several attempts at thermonuclear fusion, but they did not manage to get enough energy. Thus, in 2014, scientists were able to produce approximately as much energy as a 60-watt light bulb consumes in five minutes. And last year they managed to reach 10 quadrillion watts of output power, which is about 70% of the energy consumed during the experiment.
Only in the last experiment did it manage to produce slightly more energy than was consumed, which means that the reaction should be able to power itself for a short time, using its own energy to synthesize additional hydrogen atoms and not be dependent on energy from lasers.
Of course, the aforementioned research of scientists can be considered a great achievement without hesitation. But it should be understood that it will take a long time before thermonuclear energy becomes a part of our lives, and many more studies and scientific experiments will be required.
“[Thermonuclear] ignition is the first step, a truly monumental one, that sets the stage for a transformational decade in high-energy-density science and fusion research, and I cannot wait to see where it takes us," LLNL Director Dr. Kim Budil stated at the press conference.
This research may lead to a real revolution in the world energy industry in the future; thermonuclear energy can become an alternative to both nuclear power plants, which work by fission rather than fusion, and to hydrocarbon fuels. Moreover, this alternative would be safer because it would keep humanity free from harmful emissions into the atmosphere and potentially dangerous radioactive waste that is a byproduct of atomic fission.