California scientists have achieved a major advance in fusion energy, a technology that could potentially provide clean, carbon-free power in years to come, the Department of Energy announced Tuesday.
The breakthrough was made Dec. 5 at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory’s National Ignition Facility, 50 miles east of San Francisco. The work uses giant lasers to create heat and pressure close to that found in the sun, enough to drive atoms together, releasing tremendous energy.
The advance described Tuesday was that researchers have been able to create more energy in the process than they put into it, what’s known as “ignition.” In a news conference, U.S. Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm described it as a “fusion breakthrough” that “will go down in the history books.”
“It’s a scientific milestone,” said Arati Prabhakar, directo of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. “It’s also an engineering marvel beyond belief.”
The hope is that in time, this process can be scaled up and done cheaply enough to create power that is carbon-free without the creation of radioactive waste that is the challenge with fusion’s more problematic sibling, nuclear fission.
“Reaching ignition is an achievement that has come after over 60 years of global research,” said Jill Hruby, under secretary for nuclear security and administrator for the National Nuclear Security Administration.
The arrival of commercial fusion reactors that can power cities will take years and the work of both public and private researchers, said Kim Budil, director of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.
“I don’t want to give you a sense that we’re going to plug the NIF (National Ignition Facility at Livermore) into the grid. But this is the fundamental building block” of such work, she said.
How did they do it?
Fusion consists of combining two atoms together, a process that releases tremendous amounts of energy. It’s the opposite of nuclear fission, in which atoms are blasted apart, also releasing energy.
At Livermore, the researchers focused 192 enormous lasers at a tiny metal cylinder no bigger than a pencil eraser, inside of which sat a tiny, peppercorn-sized pellet of fuel.
“The lasers smash the pellet in from all sides, which compresses it to the point you get the density and temperature to trigger fusion, similar to what you have in the sun,” said Eric Gimon, a particle physicist and senior fellow with Energy Innovations, a nonpartisan energy and climate policy firm.
For the first time, researchers were able to get more energy out of the process than they put in — a proof of concept that this can, eventually, be an energy source. “About 2 megajoules in about 3 megajoules out, a gain of 1.5,” said Marvin Adams, the deputy administrator for defense programs at the National Nuclear Security Administration.
When the pressure and heat were sufficient, the atoms combine, releasing more energy than had been put into the process. That was the breakthrough – previously it always took more energy to make the process happen than came out. Now the calculus has changed, making energy production, eventually, possible.
“This is just the first step,” Gimon said. “If you were climbing the Eifel Tower, this would only be the first landing.”
How would a fusion reactor work?
After many scientific and engineering obstacles are overcome, the goal would be to create a power plant that used fusion to generate heat and electricity.
When the atoms are smashed together and combine, neutrons are released. These stream out of the reaction chamber and can be used to heat a liquid, probably water, to create steam. This steam in turn could be used to power turbines that would produce electricity, said Alain Brizard, a theoretical fusion expert at Saint Michael’s College in Vermont who was not part of the project.
The entire process produces “an order of magnitude” less radioactive material than a nuclear power plant that splits atoms through fission, he said.
The material of the reactor itself would become slightly radioactive, but with a very short half-life of a few days to a few weeks, unlike the products from nuclear power plants, some of which can require thousands of years to become safe, according to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
Fusion power plants could also not have the possibility of catastrophic failures and meltdowns such as can accidentally occur in nuclear plants, as they did in Chernobyl or Fukushima.
With fusions as soon as you turn off the laser, the entire process stops, Brizard said.
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Don’t count on fusion power anytime soon
The road from the tiny experiment in Livermore and fusion powerplants is long, said experts. The process will have to be repeated, tested, scaled up and made economically viable, which will take years if not decades.
“I would say that in the next 20 years we would have a commercially operating nuclear fusion reactor,” Brizard said. Budil on Tuesday put it at perhaps 10 years.
These are going to be big plants — the size of today’s power plants.
“It’s not going to be like Mr. Fusion in ‘Back to the Future II,'” said Bizard, referencing the coffee-can-sized fusion reactor that fueled the DeLorean at the end of the film.
The work is a prime example of the painstaking time involved in getting to scientific breakthroughs. It was decades in the making and is an excellent example of the power of serious, deep, long-term scientific research and development, the kind that can only be funded by the public sector.
“The science and technology challenges on the path to fusion energy are daunting, but making the seemingly impossible possible is when we’re at our very best,” said Budil. “This is how we do really big, hard things.”
, a physics professor at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.
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What this means for climate change and renewables
The breakthrough is not the answer to climate change and doesn’t mean work to shift to carbon-neutral energy production can stop.
“There’s no chance that this will be commercialized by 2030 and we have to cut our country’s emissions 50% by 2005 levels by then if we hope to keep temperature rise at a relatively safe level,” said Michael O’Boyle, director of electricity policy at Energy Innovation.
The world will need to stay focused on adding more diversity to the global energy mix, like deploying already mature carbon-neutral technologies such as wind, solar, hydro and nuclear, and continuing to explore emerging technologies like geothermal power and offshore floating wind.
“This is definitely good news that we’ve got another potentially promising option in the long run but we’re just going to have to wait and see how things go,” O’Boyle said.
Contributing: Karen Weintraub
Story Credit: usatoday.com