Reports: US scientists expected to announce long-awaited breakthrough in nuclear fusion
The US Department of Energy is expected to announce on Tuesday that scientists have for the first time successfully produced a nuclear fusion reaction resulting in a net energy gain, according to Financial Times and The Washington Post.
The result of the experiment will be a huge step in the decades-long quest to unlock an endless source of clean energy that can help end dependence on fossil fuels. Researchers have been trying for decades to recreate nuclear fusion – replicating the fusion that powers the sun.
Scientists from the National Ignition Facility at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California made the discovery, according to The Post.
U.S. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm will make an announcement Tuesday about a “major scientific breakthrough,” the department said Sunday.
The department declined to comment to CNN on Sunday about whether they had made the fusion breakthrough, which was first reported by the Financial Times.
Nuclear fusion occurs when two or more atoms fuse into a larger one, a process that generates a huge amount of energy as heat.
Scientists around the world are moving forward toward the breakthrough; in February, announced British scientists they had doubled the previous record for generating and sustaining nuclear fusion.
In a huge doughnut-shaped machine called a tokamak, equipped with giant magnets, scientists working near Oxford have managed to generate a record amount of sustainable energy. It only lasted 5 seconds though.
The heat sustained by the process of fusing atoms together holds the key to helping produce energy.
Like CNN reported earlier this yearthe fusion process creates helium and neutrons – which are lighter in mass than the parts they were originally made of.
The missing mass is then converted into a huge amount of energy. Neutrons that are able to escape the plasma then hit a “blanket” covering the walls of the tokamak, and their kinetic energy is transferred as heat. This heat can then be used to heat water, create steam and power turbines to generate power.
All of this requires the machine that generates the reaction to be subjected to serious heat. The plasma must reach at least 150 million degrees Celsius, 10 times hotter than the core of the sun.
The big challenge in harnessing fusion power is keeping it going long enough to power power grids and heating systems around the world.
A fusion scientist from the United Kingdom told CNN that the result of the US breakthrough is promising, but also shows that more work is needed for fusion to generate electricity on a commercial scale.
“They worked on the design and composition of the target and the shape of the energy pulse to get much better results,” Tony Roulstone of the University of Cambridge’s engineering department told CNN.
“The counter argument is that this result is miles away from the actual energy gain required to produce electricity. Therefore, we can say (it) is a success of science, but far from providing useful energy.
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