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Thursday, February 2, 2023

US announces “landmark scientific achievement” towards renewable energy with nuclear fusion

A group of American scientists has managed to successfully produce a nuclear fusion reaction capable of generating a net gain of energy. The findings, a “historic breakthrough” made at a federal facility in California, were presented by Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm at a press conference at the department’s Washington headquarters on Tuesday amid huge anticipation. With this discovery the United States government takes a closer look at the old dream of a clean, cheap and potentially inexhaustible source of energy. “It is one of the most impressive scientific achievements of the 21st century,” Granholm said. “This day will end up in the history books.”

An experiment with a laser in the US reaches a milestone in the development of a technology to produce clean and nearly renewable energy, but the goal is far from over

Researchers have basically derived a small reaction that provides more energy than it consumes. The experiments are performed at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, which houses the National Ignition Facility (NIF). It is a facility launched in 2009 that uses the largest laser in the world. Aimed at a small ball of hydrogen plasma, it creates conditions that mimic the detonation of a nuclear weapon. The great challenge of generating energy through fusion is that the amount gained is greater than the amount invested in attempting to generate a nuclear reaction: in this case, the profit is 50%. The results were obtained last week, December 5, when 192 laser beams were focused into a “peppercorn”-shaped point, momentarily generating a star position at three million degrees Celsius, Jill Herby Said. , United States Deputy Secretary of State for Nuclear Security.

Laboratory director Kim Budil explained to a visibly excited audience of officials, scientists, congressmen and members of the press that “the exploration of fusion ignition over the last decade at NIF was an incredibly ambitious technological aspiration.” “Many people said it was not possible. The laser was not powerful enough, the targets would never be accurate, our modeling and simulation tools were not up to the task of this complex physical feat,” he recalled. “Progress has taken time, but it was last August, when we achieved a record output of 1.35 megajoules, that put us on the threshold of ignition,” Budil said. Last week Livermore scientists managed to generate three megajoules of energy using just two, meaning a historic 50% gain.

The implications of the discovery, which the paper carried on Sunday financial Times, are still to be determined in all their context, but, according to Granholm, they represent a great step on the path to unlimited power and zero carbon emissions. It would also make it easier for the United States to maintain its nuclear weapons without the need to test those weapons. This was the primary purpose for which the NIF was built, at a cost of $3,500 million (3,319 million euros). Last year, Livermore scientists reported a huge leap forward by managing to generate 70% the energy with which the laser struck a hydrogen target. That explosion, something like a miniature hydrogen bomb, lasted only 100 trillionths of a second.

The Interior Of The Chamber Where Fusion Occurs At Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.
The interior of the chamber where fusion occurs at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.Philip Saltonstall

For the better part of the past century, science has spent billions trying to simulate the process that makes the Sun shine to generate a seemingly endless source of energy that doesn’t produce greenhouse gases like coal or oil. Is. , nor dangerous radioactive waste that takes a very long time to digest, as is the case with nuclear power plants. This source of electricity also offers an advantage over wind and solar power: it requires fewer resources.

The week became agitated among physicists and other scientists devoted to the study of fusion. For him, carbon-free energy is a “holy grail” he’s fantasized about since the 1950s, when the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory was founded. In this time, they were only able to create fusion reactions that consumed more energy than they were capable of producing. It may still be decades before what was presented this Tuesday in Washington is translated into commercial use, but the Joe Biden administration hasn’t missed an opportunity to present it as its national science achievement.

During the presentation of the results, Granholm assured that this achievement strengthens US national security: “And brings us closer to energy production without carbon costs. Ignition allows us for the first time to simulate some conditions found only in the Sun and stars.” Permits to repeat. Today we tell the world that America made an extraordinary discovery, because we invested in it.” The energy secretary recalled Biden’s goal of achieving “commercial fusion” in a decade. Budil, director of the lab that made the feat, tempered that enthusiasm by talking of “decades” until it was achieved.

Fusion occurs when two nuclei fuse together to form a new one, a naturally occurring process in the Sun and other stars. Achieving this on Earth requires generating and maintaining a plasma, a gas whose very high temperature creates an environment in which electrons are released from atomic nuclei. Energy is released because the mass of the bound nucleus is less than the mass of its constituent protons and neutrons; This deficit is converted into energy through the most famous equation in the history of physics, formulated by Einstein: E=mc².

Currently, various projects pursue this goal of unlimited energy through nuclear fusion. Science has been cherishing a discovery like the one announced this Tuesday in Washington for years. In February, UK researchers announced that they had more than doubled the previous record for the generation and sustainment of nuclear fusion. They did it in a giant doughnut-shaped machine equipped with huge magnets. They generated record amounts of continuous power. Unfortunately it only lasted for 5 seconds. Most relevant in Europe, the ITER project, plans to jump into a real electricity grid in the medium term.

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World Nation News Desk
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