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  • Jessica Zimmer

Could Nuclear Fusion be an 11th-Hour Lifeline in the Climate Change Battle?

Advancements in nuclear fusion at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory indicate the potential to generate enormous amounts of clean energy. Although the process could eventually help reduce carbon emissions and bolster energy security, the reality of fusion reactors powering society will take considerable time to materialize.

nuclear fusion at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory
Dr. Tammy Ma, plasma physicist at the National Ignition Facility at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, stands in front of the NIF Target Bay. Credit: Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory

“We are still several decades away from putting nuclear energy on the grid. We’ve been working on harnessing the energy from this reaction for the past 11 years on the National Ignition Facility (NIF). We’re not at ignition, the stage where we can get more energy out than we put in,” said Dr. Tammy Ma, a plasma physicist at the National Ignition Facility at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

The NIF is an immense laser system the size of a sports stadium. It can focus 192 laser beams into a target the size of a pencil eraser. Approximately 600 scientists work on a variety of different projects at NIF. These include fine-tuning the fabrication of plastic capsules that serve as targets and improving the precision of the lasers.

Ma said the benefits of nuclear fusion include the reaction being carbon-free and scalable.

“Nuclear fusion isn’t intermittent like solar or wind power. It’s sustainable because we can generate energy without damaging the environment. It’s also relatively limitless. Theoretically, there is enough fusion fuel in deuterium in the oceans to generate 30,000 years' worth of electricity for humankind. The process would not generate a measurable quantity of nuclear waste,” said Ma.

The act of nuclear fusion involves focusing laser beams on a target of deuterium and tritium. These substances are isotopes, or different forms, of hydrogen. Deuterium is naturally occurring in water, while tritium can be bred, or produced, during the fusion reaction. The laser beams cause the two substances to endure intense heat and pressures. Eventually, the two atoms fuse. The collision of two light nuclei from the atoms forms a single, heavier nucleus.

A light nucleus is a nucleus of an element near the beginning of the periodic table.

When the nuclei collide, energy is released.

“The fusion of deuterium and tritium has the highest cross-section, or probability, for fusion at conditions we can achieve in the laboratory on Earth,” said Ma.

Despite the promising potential as a clean energy source, it’s a challenge to educate the public about the process of nuclear fusion, stemming from the contentious legacy of waste-producing nuclear fission.

“We have to approach this differently than the ways that we shared information about nuclear fission, which involves splitting the nucleus of an atom into multiple smaller nuclei. We cannot realize the benefits of nuclear fusion if we cannot get communities to buy into it,” said Ma.

Yet, the COVID-19 pandemic has not slowed progress at the NIF.

“We put up clear plastic barriers in the control room. We also follow very strict protocols on mask-wearing and social distancing. For a long time, we had only the necessary staff on site,” said Ma.

The pandemic also hasn’t led to interruptions in funding from the U.S. Department of Defense. It will take a public and private partnership between the U.S. government and the U.S. fusion industry to develop a strategy to promote nuclear fusion, Ma said.

“We’re starting talks with the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission right now about what it would take to get fusion approved from a safety perspective. Still, there’s not a big effort on this at the moment. A lot of the public education campaign comes when you have a company come along with a product to promote,” said Ma.

Credit: VectorMine/Shutterstock

There are several private industry start-ups in nuclear fusion, such as Helion Energy in Everett, Washington.

Ma said new technologies are constantly being integrated into research at the NIF. These improve the procedures utilized as well as the lasers.

“Machine learning offers better insight. Additive manufacturing techniques and new laser architecture coming online push lasers to higher energy and pulse repetition rates, the number of pulses that the laser emits per second,” said Ma.

The research necessary to get nuclear fusion ready for prime time is expected to take decades, and the NIF is at the forefront of the efforts underway at several laboratories worldwide.

“We house the world’s largest, most energetic laser. Other countries are working to create such a facility but are at least five years behind. We’re currently looking ahead to understand what’s possible when you combine a well-trained technical workforce, the latest laser innovations, and some of the world’s biggest, most powerful computers,” said Ma.


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