Nuclear fusion a future clean energy alternative - GulfToday

Nuclear fusion a future clean energy alternative

The multi-billion dollar National Ignition Facility has used 192 laser beams to create net energy from a tiny pellet of nuclear fuel. (Image via Twitter)

This is said to be the beginning of a fruitful journey which would be vital in the future.

The United States Department of Energy officials announced a successful experiment at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) in California where ‘fusion’ was used to release energy, and the energy released is more than that is lost in the ignition process. Fusion is the process that is at work in sun and in the stars, which are distant suns. The experiment involved directing 192 laser beams at a thimble-needle sized cylinder containing hydrogen atoms. When the hydrogen atoms merge they create helium and release energy. This in contrast to what happens in a nuclear reactor where uranium atoms are split to release energy. Radiation is the danger in fission. Fusion does not involve radiation, leaves no nuclear waste and therefore considered safe. But there is a hitch in the LLNL experiment. It took 60 years of research to succeed in the experiment, and it felt that it will be decades before fusion could be made to happen on a large scale. But the optimism expressed is that this is the beginning of a fruitful journey which would be vital in the future that is bedevilled by the climate change crisis.

It is interesting that the successful experiment was announced to the public by a US government officer and not by the scientists themselves. The announcement of the successful experiment was made by Jill Ruby, Under-Secretary of Nuclear Security at the Department of Energy on Tuesday, December 13. She said, “Monday, December 5, 2022, was an important day in science. Reaching ignition in a controlled fusion experiment is an achievement that has come after more than 60 years of global research.”  Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm said that “this will go down in history books”. And Arati Prabhakar, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, described the successful experiment as a “tremendous example of what perseverance can achieve.”

The experts outside the laboratory were optimistic but they are not willing to declare victory too soon. A nuclear expert at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom, Tony Roustone, pointed out that the energy output of the experiment was 0.5 per cent of the energy needed to fire the lasers, and therefore it can be considered a “scientific success “but still a long way from providing useful, abundant, clean energy.” Andrew Sowder, a technology expert at the non-profit energy and research group, EPRI, said, “It’s the first step that says, “Yes, this is not just fantasy, this can be done in theory.” In America hopes seem to be running high.

Professor Denis Whyte, director of the Plasma Science and Fusion Centre at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said, “It’s almost like it’s a starting gun going off. We should be pushing towards making fusion energy systems available to tackle climate change and energy security.” It looks like that Americans are viewing the possibilities of fusion technology as a means a energy security as much as a clean energy source.

But as will all things in America, the electricity industry in the country is more than cautious. It seems to be worried that he existing energy systems should not be disrupted by the new technology as that would cause economic disruption as well. So the electricity industry is suggesting that all alternatives should be tried out including solar and wind energy, and nuclear fission.

The US government would want to speed up the fusion experiments and make it viable as a source of clean energy. The experiment would have to go to the next level of producing energy for a longer time and in a sustainable manner. It is one of the challenges of making solar power viable and it is leading to research in battery storage technology.

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