Replicating the sun could be the key to carbon-free energy

Advancements in clean energy lie in harnessing the nuclear fusions of the sun. Recently, US scientists have repeatedly recreated fusion within a laboratory setting, which produced a higher energy yield than previous attempts. It lays the foundations for a giant breakthrough in science.

For nearly a century, the scientific community has known that the process of nuclear fusion powers the sun, and over the course of several decades has diligently strived to develop fusion reactions in a laboratory. The main application of fusion is producing electricity.

Fusion occurs when two atoms slam together to form a heavier atom, and huge amounts of energy are released as a byproduct of this collision. This process is opposite to the one happening in nuclear power plants, which works on splitting the atoms into smaller parts. When atoms are split, they release energy in the form of heat and radiation.

Using fusion to produce electricity has great potential, as there are no carbon emissions and the amount of long-lived radioactive waste and greenhouse gases produced through fusion are minimal.

The main fuels used in nuclear fusion are deuterium and tritium, which are both commonly found on the surface of the planet. For example, deuterium can easily be extracted from seawater.

fusion ignition
The National Ignition Facility’s preamplifier module increases the laser energy as it travels to the Target Chamber | Photo by Reuters

The scientific breakthrough

So far scientists were struggling with achieving ignition. Ignition means that a fusion reaction produces more energy than was used to start the reaction. In the natural world, stars achieve ignition at temperatures comparable to those of the Sun, reaching approximately 27 million degrees Fahrenheit. Man-made reactors are much smaller, so much higher temperatures are required over 180 million° F.

In 2021, scientists achieved ignition for the first time, and this milestone was repeated in December 2022. In a recent breakthrough last week, scientists at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory have managed to achieve energy gain in a fusion reaction that produced a higher energy yield than previous attempts.

The researchers directed a laser toward a fuel target, causing two lightweight atoms to merge into a denser one, which led to the release of energy. This specific experiment resulted in an energy output of 3.15 megajoules, with the experiment's laser delivering 2.05 megajoules to the target.

This significant advancement gives hope for a further push forward of a technology that holds the potential to play a pivotal role in addressing environmental and energy challenges.

Though the use of fusion power at a commercial scale is still decades away due to lingering scientific uncertainties surrounding its development, upscaling this technology might well be a game changer in addressing the climate crisis.

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