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What is nuclear fusion and what do you need to know about this scientific breakthrough?

What is nuclear fusion and what do you need to know about this scientific breakthrough?

(CNN) — For the first time in history, American scientists at the National Ignition Facility at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California have successfully produced A nuclear fusion reaction That resulted in a net energy gain, a source familiar with the project confirmed to CNN.

The US Department of Energy is expected to officially announce the breakthrough on Tuesday.

The test’s outcome will be a major step in the decades-long quest to unlock an infinite source of clean energy that could end reliance on fossil fuels. For decades, researchers have tried to recreate nuclear fusion, which mimics the energy that powers the Sun.

Here’s what you need to know about this new nuclear power that could eventually power the lights in your home.

What is nuclear fusion and why is it important?

Nuclear fusion is a man-made process that replicates the same energy that powers the Sun. Nuclear fusion occurs when two or more atoms combine to form a larger atom, a process that produces large amounts of energy in the form of heat.

Scientists around the world have been studying nuclear fusion for decades, hoping to recreate it with a new source of unlimited, carbon-free energy without the nuclear waste produced by today’s nuclear reactors. Fusion programs mainly use the elements deuterium and tritium, both of which are isotopes of hydrogen.

A glass of deuterium, with a little tritium added, can power a house for a year. Tritium is rare and very difficult to obtain, although it can be produced synthetically.

“Unlike carbon, you only need a small amount of hydrogen, and it’s the most abundant substance in the universe,” Julio Friedman, chief scientist at Carbon Direct and former head of energy technology at Lawrence Livermore, told CNN. “Hydrogen is found in water, so the things that generate this energy are limitless and pure.”

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How does fusion differ from nuclear fission?

When people think of nuclear power, cooling towers and mushroom clouds may come to mind. But the connection is completely different.

When fusion joins two or more atoms together, fission is the opposite; It is the process of splitting a large atom into two or smaller atoms. Nuclear fission is the type of energy that powers nuclear reactors around the world today. As with fusion, the heat generated from the fission of atoms is used to generate energy.

According to the Department of Energy, nuclear power is a zero-emission energy source. But it produces volatile radioactive waste that must be stored safely and carries safety risks. Nuclear reactors with consequences as far-reaching and deadly as nuclear reactors have occurred throughout history, though rarely. Fukushima And Chernobyl.

Nuclear fusion does not have the same safety risks, and the materials used to fuel it have a much shorter half-life than fission.

How can nuclear fusion power power the lights in your home?

There are two main ways to create nuclear fusion, but both have the same result. The fusion of two atoms creates a large amount of heat, which is the key to producing energy. That heat is used to heat water, generate steam, and power spin turbines, just as nuclear fission produces power.

The big challenge is harnessing fusion power to power grids and heating systems around the world. The successful U.S. breakthrough is important, but it is still small in scale compared to what it would take to generate enough power to run one power plant, let alone tens of thousands of power plants.

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“It’s about boiling 10 kettles of water,” said Jeremy Chittenden, co-director of the Center for Inertial Fusion Research at Imperial College London. “To make it a power plant, we have to get more energy, and it has to be significantly higher.”

Why is the Department of Energy’s upcoming announcement about a fusion reaction resulting in a net energy gain important?

This is the first time scientists have successfully produced a nuclear fusion reaction that results in a net gain of energy instead of reaching equilibrium as in previous experiments.

Although there are still many steps until it is commercially viable, scientists need to show that they can generate more energy than they started with. Otherwise, there is not much point in growing it.

“It’s really important because, from an energy perspective, you can’t be a source of energy unless you’re getting more energy out than you’re putting out,” Friedman told CNN. “Previous advances are important, but it’s not the same as creating power that can be used on a large scale one day.”

Where does the connection take place?

There are many affiliate programs in the US, UK and Europe. France hosts the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor, in which thirty-five countries cooperate, including key members China, the United States, the European Union, Russia, India, Japan, and South Korea.

In the US, much of the work takes place at the National Ignition Facility at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, a building the size of three football fields.

The National Ignition Facility program produces energy through nuclear fusion, known as “thermonuclear inertial fusion”. In practice, American scientists fired a hydrogen-fueled buckshot into an array of nearly 200 lasers, essentially creating a series of extremely fast repetitive bursts at a rate of 50 times per second. The energy collected from neutrons and alpha particles is extracted as heat.

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In the UK and the ITER project in France, scientists are trying to create the same result with large donut-shaped machines fitted with giant magnets called tokamaks. After fueling the tokamak, its magnets are ignited and the temperature inside rises exponentially to create plasma.

The plasma must reach at least 150 million degrees Celsius, 10 times hotter than the core of the Sun. The neutrons then escape the plasma and hit a “blanket” on the walls of the tokamak, converting their kinetic energy into heat.

What are the next steps?

Scientists and engineers must now figure out how to produce more power from nuclear fusion on a much larger scale.

At the same time, they need to figure out how to reduce the cost of nuclear fusion and make it commercially viable.

“Now we spend a lot of time and money on every test we do,” Chittenden said. “We need to reduce costs by a huge factor.”

Scientists must harvest the energy produced by fusion and convert it into electricity for the power grid. Fusion could take years, if not decades, to produce unlimited clean energy, and scientists are racing against time to fight climate change.

“It won’t contribute significantly to climate relief in the next 20 to 30 years,” Friedman said. “It’s the difference between striking a match and building a gas turbine.”