Scientists make major breakthrough in nuclear fusion

13 Feb 2014

In what could prove to be the first step towards nuclear fusion, the ‘holy grail’ of energy production, a team of Californian scientists have re-created the energy of the sun in a laboratory.

The scientists’ research results have been published in the weekly scientific journal Nature.

The team was able to create nuclear fusion by aiming 192 X-ray lasers at a fuel source, releasing 170 micrograms of super-heated energy registering at levels that are usually only recorded on the sun’s surface.

As part of the experiment, the powerful lasers were aimed at a gold capsule that contained a 2mm-wide capsule with a minuscule amount of fuel coated on the inside layer of the capsule.

However, these are no ordinary fuel pellets. Coming in at US$1m each, the pellets contain tritium and deuterium, which act as the fuel source once it is heated in the gold capsule.

When the capsule is cooled down to -254.55˚C, the deuterium and tritium in the capsule forms a layer of ice on the inside of the sphere of about 70 micromtres thick.

When the process is completed, the reaction is capable of employing 1.9 megajoules of energy in slightly more than a nanosecond with the lasers delivering 500 terawatts of power inside the capsule.

Despite these impressive-sounding numbers, the actual energy that is produced from the experiment, about 17 kilojoules, is a tiny fraction of the energy consumed by the research team.

If it is to be the fuel source of the future, scientists will need to discover a way to produce more energy from the reaction that is put into it.

Bright future

This does not make it a failure, however. According to the team members, it gives them a platform to develop the technology in the right direction, despite it being in an embryonic stage of development.

“The real significance of this is, we’re now matching our models, we have our feet back on the ground where we know where to go forward,” said Jeff Wisoff, the principal associate director of NIF and photon science at the lab, in speaking to the Washington Post. “We have a number of knobs we can turn.”

Director of the Princeton laboratory, Stewart Prager, believes that within our lifetime the technology will become applicable to mankind.

“It’s the first sign that they’re getting what we call self-heating. In 30 years, we’ll have electricity on the grid produced by fusion energy – absolutely.

 “I think the open questions now are how complicated a system will it be, how expensive it will be, how economically attractive it will be.”

These results will no doubt have the attention of scientists across the world, in hoping this provides the ‘spark’ to usher in a new age of clean, almost limitless energy where experimental reactors like Iter in France are already beginning to work on similar projects.

Nuclear fusion image via Shutterstock

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic