An attempt to recreate nuclear fusion, that takes place naturally inside stars’ core, will be experimented at the National Ignition Facility (NIF), in California, that was inaugurated on Friday. The NIF is a 10-storey building with a surface as large as three football fields. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who cut the ribbon of the $3.5bn facility said it could “revolutionise our energy future”.
Nuclear fusion is thought to be the ultimate energy source in terms of power and density. It takes place when atoms of a light material such as hydrogen are hit by a force great enough to join the hydrogen atoms and release about 17MeV from that joint. That energy would be much higher than the energy put in to force those atoms combine, and it would be many times higher than that resulted from nuclear fission, the phenomena already used in current active nuclear power plants. Nuclear fusion is the opposite of nuclear fission.
Operated by Lawrence Livermore National Security, the facility has taken almost 15 years to build and commission. Inside, the scientists will use the most powerful laser existing on Earth to focus on tiny 2mm perfect balls of frozen hydrogen. The atoms in frozen hydrogen are much closer to one another, and it’s easier (though huge energy amounts will be focused on each) to join them and create much more energy than they it’s put in. Each tiny frozen hydrogen pellet would cost around $40,000 to produce, because of the strict spherical shape they have to respect (to ensure they collapse properly when the laser light strikes).
The scientists will use 192 lasers, that will hit the frozen hydrogen in a burst lasting about 5 billionths of a second, and will generate temperatures around 100,000,000 °C. All the system will be producing except energy, at the impact, will be helium, whose processing will add another 3MeV/atom to the 14 of the initial fusion.
To operate in a commercially-feasible manner and produce energy continuously, the laser will have to shoot 10 bursts per second. For the moment, this is only in written in future plans, because the lasers are only able to currently fire only a few times a day. The fusion reactor will go to full throttle by the end of this year, with experiments scheduled until 2040.
Not only the NIF building is tinkering with nuclear fusion. The UK has an ongoing plan that would use sea water and lithium to create huge amounts of energy and change “the future energy map for the world”. Plans for a laser-ignited nuclear fusion plant have also been projected at UKAEA in Culham, and the whole project has been named “Hiper Project”. The project’s creators say that, if successful, with the plan’t abilities, the researchers could create the equivalent of whole world’s oil reserves only from one cubic kilometer of sea water.
That sounds more interesting – it’s already beginning to sound like a race between the parties – let’s hope this green dream will not end up being another cold war, but instead a warm cooperation towards a cheap energy future. And let’s hope that discovering new abundant energy sources like fusion won’t lead us being inefficient and careless – again.