Some things in science are just great. Others are genius and potentially life-altering. This week, the US Department of Energy announced that one of its laboratories, the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL), achieved something called fusion ignition. Let’s take a look at what that means and why it matters for climate change.
The Department of Energy press release stated: “On December 5, a team from LLNL’s National Ignition Facility (NIF) conducted the first controlled fusion experiment in history to achieve this milestone, also known as scientific energy balance, which means that it produced more energy from the fusion. than the laser energy used to drive it. Fusion is the same process by which the Sun produces energy. For decades, scientists have tried to reproduce the mechanism in laboratories, but it has been elusive. Dr. Arati Prabhakar, senior science and technology adviser to the president and director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, noted: “We’ve had a theoretical understanding of fusion for more than a century, but the journey of Knowing how to do can be long and arduous. Today’s milestone shows what we can do with perseverance.”
So why is this important for climate change? Fusion occurs when two lighter nuclei (in this case hydrogen) combine to produce a single heavier nucleus (such as helium). During that process, a significant amount of clean energy is released. The Department of Energy press release went on to say, “This landmark achievement, the first of its kind, will provide unprecedented capability to support the NNSA Reserve Management Program and provide valuable insight into the outlook for fusion power.” clean, which would be a game-changer for efforts to achieve President Biden’s goal of a net zero carbon economy.”
This announcement is a game changer for the science, technology and engineering communities. However, it is important to calibrate expectations. We are still probably years or decades away from mimicking the power of the Sun on scales large enough to meet current energy needs. This experiment produced enough net gained energy to boil a couple of gallons of water, but that’s not the exciting point. The point is that more energy was produced as output than was delivered as input. Keep in mind that the first airplane was not a Boeing Dreamliner and that the first mobile phones required little effort to pick up.
However, it is very attractive and hopeful to imagine an energy economy free of emissions, air pollution or radioactive waste. The fuel supply for fusion is hydrogen. Hydrogen is very abundant. As you read this, you may be wondering how fusion differs from fission in nuclear power plants. The International Atomic Energy Agency website says: “Fission splits a heavy element (with a high atomic mass number) into fragments; while fusion joins two light elements (with a low atomic mass number), forming a heavier element”. Both processes release energy, but fusion does not produce radioactive waste. Produces inert helium (which, by the way, can be used in weather balloons). Fusion also does not produce the chain reactions that are characteristic of nuclear accidents, nor is it really viable for weapons production.
Perhaps now you understand why scientists are dizzy.