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Nuclear Fusion Sees Progress, But Road Ahead Still Long

Copyright © 2021 Energy Intelligence Group
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A US government lab recently announced that a nuclear fusion experiment generated almost as much energy as was used to run it -- in what appears for the first time to be a self-sustaining reaction. This milestone happened at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory's National Ignition Facility (NIF). "Our next plan is to try to repeat the shot as closely as possible, and we might go up or drop because it's very sensitive to every little thing, but we're right at the beginning where a very steep exponential curve takes off," NIF laser scientist Tammy Ma tells Energy Intelligence. This has caused a lot of excitement in the press about fusion-based energy production being around the corner. NIF's achievement is indeed remarkable but does not make commercial fusion more likely to happen soon, says Daniel Vanderhaegen, a physicist working on France's Laser Megajoule (LMJ), a device similar to NIF. This is basically because laser-based fusion, known as inertial confinement, is not the most practical route for commercial applications, he believes. The other route, magnetic confinement, is technologically more advanced and less of a challenge when it comes to continuous energy generation, according to Vanderhaegen. NIF and LMJ have a very different purpose. They are primarily aimed at providing experimental insight and data relevant for nuclear weapon simulations now that actual testing of such weapons has been banned. There are, however, "some engineering pros" to laser-driven fusion, Ma emphasizes, especially the fact that the main project components -- including the lasers, fusion chamber and targets -- can be "completely separated," which gives engineers "a lot more flexibility." Both technologies also share similar challenges, in terms, for example, of materials, measurement and nuclear safety. How It Works While fission, the process used in today's nuclear reactors, involves splitting heavy atomic nuclei apart, fusion works by combining light nuclei to release energy (see table). So far, besides stars, it has only been achieved on a large, explosive scale by humans in hydrogen bombs. Concepts currently explored to achieve controlled fusion involve two processes: magnetic confinement where hot gas is held in a toroidal -- or donut-shaped -- device called a tokamak, or inertial confinement where multiple laser beams are directed toward a small target to smash it. Magnetic confinement makes more engineering sense for commercial applications because it is pursuing continuous operation, whereas inertial confinement would involve preparing and compressing a different target about 10 times per second, 24 hours a day. How Nuclear Fusion Compares Combustion Nuclear

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