Breakthrough Experiment: Nuclear Fusion!

Source: The New Yorker

By Emma Wu

Our world is powered by energy. From fossil fuels to solar energy, we have tried all sorts of energy sources. Fossil fuels produce efficient energy at a cheap cost; however, they also introduce disastrous amounts of waste into our environment, polluting our air, water, and land. On the other hand, solar energy, wind energy, and other natural sources of energy are significantly healthier for our environment and produce much less waste, but they also depend largely on the weather, whether the clouds cover the sun, or if the winds are blowing with strong enough force. These are unreliable factors to rely on for powering the general public. With the need to find a clean, dependable source of energy, scientists have turned to nuclear fusion.

Nuclear fusion is the process in which light atoms are fused to create heavier atoms. Its counterpart would be nuclear fission, where heavy atoms, such as uranium, are broken apart into lighter atoms to produce energy. Fission tends to produce much more energy with more efficiency, but due to its use of heavy atoms, it produces radioactive waste that is difficult to get rid of and pollutes our environment. Thus, the idea of using nuclear fusion arose to reverse the process of fission. Nuclear fusion does not produce the radioactive nightmare that nuclear fission releases. The downside is that controlled nuclear fusion is much harder to perform. Naturally occurring nuclear fusion occurs in the sun, where a proton from a hydrogen atom typically combines with other protons to form helium. However, getting these atoms to fuse together requires a lot of energy at a high temperature with high pressure. In the sun, fusion is performed by intense gravitational pull. Scientists needed to bring this process to earth in a controlled lab environment.

Livermore, California, near 1 am PST on December 5, 2022, saw the first nuclear fusion experiment resulting in the net production of energy. In the National Ignition Facility, 192 lasers were aimed at a small capsule containing deuterium and tritium, heavy types of hydrogen. This 2-million-joule laser pulse produced a 3-million-joule burst of energy from the capsule. The experiment was a breakthrough. Its results mark the first time a nuclear fusion experiment produced more energy than what was put in. As physicist Gilbert Collins says, “Since I started in this field, fusion was always 50 years away… With this achievement, the landscape has changed.” Although the amount of energy produced could not power an entire city grid, it demonstrates a breakthrough step towards a new energy source that has enormous potential. This is a turning point in our technology. This experiment can be used as a compass for laboratories to continue to improve and progress this field, catalyzing a future energy source in nuclear fusion. Future generations can take steps to a healthier future with clean, efficient energy.