Recently, scientists at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory have performed a fusion experiment in which more energy was produced by a fusion reaction than was put into starting the reaction. This is a breakthrough that has many in the field of nuclear physics ecstatic. The gaining of energy from a fusion reaction has been promised for over 70 years, dating back to the 1950’s. However, it took until today to finally achieve this goal. This waiting of more than 70 years has many wondering if fusion energy will ever actually be used to power homes, devices, cars, etc. Although, before we can get into the future of fusion energy and if it will be our main source of power, it would be wise to first discuss what fusion energy is.
Fusion energy is the combining of two lighter elements into one, heavier element. For example, two hydrogen atoms can combine to form a helium atom. This combination releases a stupendous amount of energy. Fusion is the mechanism which the sun uses to produce its energy and light. Now some of you might be asking, “Why haven’t fusion experiments produced more energy than was put into the reaction?”. Well, this is because it is hard to make atoms combine. This is due to the fact that the protons of atoms are positively charged, so when you try and push them together, they will repel since they are the same charge. The reason the sun is so readily able to use fusion is because the sun uses gravity to overcome the proton’s repelling charges. However, on Earth, we cannot use gravity to make fusion because that would require a mass comparable to stars, which we simply can’t have on Earth. There are two methods of fusion that we can use on Earth: inertial confinement and magnetic confinement. Inertial confinement is the method that was used in the recent experiment at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. This method uses lasers to zap a pellet of fusion material. The lasers cause the pellet to explode into a plasma and compress, which allows fusion to happen. Magnetic confinement uses magnets to compress a plasma into fusing atoms. Magnetic confinement is more often used by companies trying to make fusion energy commercial.
Now, for the big question. Is fusion energy likely going to be commercial very soon? In short, no. This is because fusion power plants will most likely be magnetic confinement in nature. Thus, the laser approach used by the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory has different engineering challenges than future fusion reactors. Also, fusion has a high cost. It takes a lot of money to do these experiments, especially the inertial confinement method since that uses very powerful, very expensive lasers. If we want cheap fusion energy power plants, we probably won’t use the inertial confinement used with the recent experiment.
Don’t be discouraged, however from reading this article. If we achieve cheap fusion energy, we can provide a future of reliable, safe, and environmentally clean energy. Along with that, this recent experiment is a proof of concept that will allow private investors and governments to look more into fusion energy. This uptake in interest could allow for more money to be allocated for these types of experiments. Also, this experiment has allowed nuclear physicists to update their mathematical models to more accurately represent fusion inside a reactor. In conclusion, we should not see the reason progress in fusion as sign that you will have a fusion reactor powering your home soon, but this experiment is still a significant leap of progress to that goal. I am truly hopeful that in our lifetime, we will be able to teach how fusion reactors work to the next generation of high school students.