On Tuesday, the Associated Press reported the announcement from scientists at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) in California, where the success of the net energy gain took place. The Department of Energy explains that fusion is the same reaction as what powers the sun and stars.
In fusion, two nuclei merge to form a single nucleus that has less mass than the original two nuclei, and the leftover mass becomes energy, the DOE explained.
ORNL‘s Fusion Energy Division Director Mickey Wade spoke about the importance of the fusion experiment’s success and ORNL’s history with fusion experiments.
Wade shared with WATE that while fusion research has been going on for over 60 years, ORNL began looking at fusion research in the late 1950s and lead the research in the 1990s. The lab stepped back from the research in the 2000s, but they are now reasserting leadership in various areas that are important to fusion research.
The scientific capability and understanding behind Fusion research in the broader scope has been progressing leading up to LLNL’s successful experiment, according to Wade.
“This is a real milestone to show that we can get scientific breakthrough. There’s a lot of work left to do to show that we can turn this into an energy source, but it is definitely confirmation of all the scientific advance that has been made in the last 20 years,” Wade said.
Much of the importance of scientific breakthroughs are based on the byproducts of the reaction that creates the energy.
“The easiest form of fusion on earth is fusing two hydrogen isotopes, deuterium and tritium. If you bring those close enough and they are hot enough together, they will fuse and produce a helium atom,” Wade said. “So your waste from the product is just a helium atom and a high energy neutron that carries most of energy of the reaction away that you then capture and turn into electricity.”
Wade said the experiment at LLNL places two isotopes into a small capsule, like a bb, before heating it with high-powered lasers, causing the shell to implode, which heated the isotopes to a temperature where a significant amount of fusion could happen. The researchers claimed that the fusion created three megajoules, which is a significant amount.
Accounting for one megajoule equating to 1,000,000 joules, the reaction that created approximately three megajoules had just under one-tenth of the joules in a liter of gasoline, which amounts to between 31,536,000 and 34,342,382 joules, according to various sources.
Each national lab focuses on researching fusion but uses different approaches for the process. Wade shared that LLNL focuses on laser-induced fusion, whereas ORNL focuses more on magnetic confinement fusion.
Wade said there is a lot of commonality between the research to turn fusion into an energy resource.
According to Wade, research will take some time before fusion is able to be used for substantial energy production. Researchers will need steps to be able to make the reaction happen 10 times per second, and harness the power and heat from those reactions, soon turning it into energy.
“Fusion, once it’s deployed and capable of generating that type of electricity, will be the clean energy of the future because it’s clean, in terms of not greenhouse gasses, the level of waste that’s generated is modest, especially compared to fission, and it also has the, essentially, inexhaustible fuel, so there’s millions of years of fuel available for fusion. So we could have a clean energy source for not only this millennium but many millennia to come,” Wade said.
According to DOE, in comparison to fission is what happens when a neutron makes contact with another atom then forcing it to excite and split into two smaller atoms. The reaction is commonly used on uranium and plutonium in nuclear power reactors and the energy released by fission in the reactors heats water and then spins a turbine to produce carbon-free electricity.
ORLN is looking into the future of fusion in terms of research, technology and a sustainable energy source. Wade said ORNL is planning to have multiple facilities for the development of technology and to host a pilot plant in the future.
“This would be the first-of-a-kind fusion system, and we have aspirations to host that on the ORNL campus,” Wade said. “We have been in discussion with various private companies about the possibilities of doing that.”
ORNL has a broad set of capabilities that are fusion adjacent and can help with their research on fusion, such as their materials program, computation and frontier, which is the fastest computer in the world.
“We’re bringing all that together in one place to take on this,” Wade said. “You know, it’s a really challenging problem to turn fusion into an energy source, but if we’re successful, it will change the quality of life for generations to come, and that’s what we’re striving to do. This result is really important in showing that we can do this from a scientific breakeven point.”