The black sheep of the clean energy family, nuclear power, has dealt with a PR stigma for decades. Some of it deserved (potential destructiveness in a weaponized form) and much of it undeserved (panic over instances like Three-Mile Island, which resulted in zero deaths and no radiation problems).
This has led to funding-related issues regarding research into harnessing nuclear power, with many projects failing to receive the cash they need to continue, or having to be shelved altogether.
One such project that was in danger of losing funding for its primary mission, to study the process of Ignition in fusion science, was the NIF (National Ignition Facility). A notoriously difficult and expensive area of research (but oh so necessary), the NIF has had to deal with unrealistic time and cost expectations from impatient, unsold policymakers who control the purse strings, and was nearly put out to pasture.
Then a breakthrough occurred. They were able to produce fuel gains in nuclear fusion reactions using a laser system, and in doing so, advancing the future potential of the nuclear industry.
Here is what it all means.
To start, nuclear fusion is a reaction in which two or more atomic nuclei collide and join to form a new type of atomic nucleus. When this occurs, the mass of the fusing nuclei is converted to photons (energy). For reference, fusion is what powers the stars and generates their light. Fission, on the other hand, is a reaction in which the nucleus of a particle splits into smaller parts, producing free neutrons and photons, and in doing so, releasing energy through radioactive decay.
Considering how fusion works, ignition is essential. This is the process of releasing fusion energy equal to or greater than the amount of energy used to confine the fuel.
While NIF has yet to achieve true ignition, the researchers just recently accomplished a milestone in their attempt to find it: They have been able to achieve fuel gains greater than unity, which means that the energy generated through fusion reactions exceeded the amount of energy deposited into the fusion fuel. Not only that, but their findings were “an order of magnitude improvement in yield performance over past experiments.”
Producing a pair of nuclear fusion reactions that created more energy than was in the fuel to start with was accomplished using 193 lasers, a facility larger than three football fields, and a pill-sized gold can with a deuterium-tritium fuel covered sphere inside. With a precise combination of shocks from the laser beams, the pressure inside the sphere was boosted to a level several times greater than the center of the sun. It lasted for around a seventh of a billionth of a second, long enough for the fuel inside to begin fusing.
In essence, they figured out how to squeeze the hydrogen fuel together evenly with the laser to make helium atoms (which then produce the energy).
While the resources put in place to allow this experiment to work are wildly expensive and not even close to being an efficient way to produce nuclear energy through ignition (the 1.8 million joules of energy produced by the lasers need to disappear, for example), it shows our interest and investment has been worthwhile, and that we are on the right track with steadily improving results.
This would be a benefit to us all, because nuclear fusion would certainly be a cleaner source of energy than the current generation of nuclear power plants due to the short-lived radioactive byproducts.
NIF made a big step, but we still have a ways to go. Hopefully this will reinvigorate public opinion on the necessity of nuclear power going forward and keep the much-needed research dollars going to the right places.