A milestone in Fusion Energy

In the NIF experiments,192 lasers deliver up to 1.9MJ of light into a gold hohlraum, a cylindrically shaped radiation cavity that converts the energy into X-rays. A series of steps then results in fusion. (Credit: Eduard Dewald/LLNL)

Whilst the production of energy from splitting atoms has been achieved in the last century (on December 2nd, 1942 for those history buffs among you) the controlled production of energy through fusion of two atoms (normally He, or alpha particles) has eluded scientists in spite of the many efforts all over the world.

Creating energy through fusion (this is real creation, since we are transforming mass in energy, E=mc2) is the holy grail in energy domain, since it will produce plenty of clean energy. The problem is that producing energy through controlled fusion requires more energy than what is being produced.

Now, in what can be a crucial milestone in this quest, for the first time scientists at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in the National Ignition Facility (NIF) have demonstrated a process leading to a ratio greater than 1 between the energy created and the one used to sustain the fusion.

The process being used is know as bootstrapping, with alpha particles used to generate more alpha particles leading to the ignition of the fuel.

It is not yet the end, but it is a crucial demonstration that we can achieve fusion in a controlled and effective way. It will probably take a few more years, 20 may be, but in the end, and before we run out of other energy sources we might have clean, abundant and sustainable energy at our disposal. That is going to change the rules of the game in many sectors.

However, one should notice that the "energy life cycle" (here energy is used in a loose sense, rather than in a physics sense...) involves production, transportation to the point of usage and consumption (transformation and dissipation according to the second law of thermodynamics). Even the availability of effective fusion would not address all issues. 

Energy creation, through fusion, will be (for as far as we can predict) a very centralised process, you will not have a fusion plant in your home.... Hence the issue of transporting that energy (power) to the point were it can be used (transformed) stays unchanged. The dissipation involved in transportation will remain an issue and the availability of smart grids for power distribution will not diminish. Similarly, the quest for a more efficient use of energy through less power hungry electronics will continue. 

I was just discussing yesterday at the IEEE Board of setting up a challenge for coming to a mix of technology that can allow harvest of energy at the point of utilisation. For many tiny devices, like sensors, this might be a goal that we can achieve by the next decade, shortcutting energy transportation and de facto increasing the energy cycle efficiency by 30%.

This is an area where research on smart materials, nano-technology and a smart use of ICT can make a difference.

Author - Roberto Saracco

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