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Summary:

The work out of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory is promising, but researchers still have a long road ahead of them before the technology comes anywhere near to commercial viability.

A metallic case called a hohlraum holds the fuel capsule for NIF experiments. Target handling systems precisely position the target and freeze it to cryogenic temperatures (18 kelvins, or -427 degrees Fahrenheit) so that a fusion reaction is more easily achieved.
photo: Eduard Dewald/LLNL

If the world ran on nuclear fusion, the Earth could provide us with the resources to meet current energy demands for billions of years. So it’s no wonder that scientists have spent 60 years pouring billions of dollars into developing the technology.

Commercial viability is still a long way off for fusion, but Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory researchers announced today that they have reached a long-sought milestone: the fuel used to create fusion in their reactor is capable of producing more energy than required to initiate fusion. They published their work in Nature today.

Unlike fission, which works by splitting atoms and is used in nuclear power plants, fusion works by joining two atoms together. When the atoms’ nuclei fuse, they release an incredible amount of energy. We experience this process every day via the Sun, which, deep at its core, contains a natural fusion reactor. The energy it produces is powerful enough to create the light and heat that make life here on Earth possible.

The Livermore reactor is complex. The fusion process begins with 192 lasers, which heat a cylinder (pictured above) that measures just 1 centimeter across to millions of degrees. Nestled inside of the cylinder is a tiny plastic pellet, and inside of the pellet are two forms of hydrogen plasma — the fuel. When the cylinder heats up, it produces x-rays that cause the pellet to explode, compressing the gas.

Only 1/200th of the laser’s energy makes it to the hydrogen atoms. The more energy the atoms receive, the more fusion happens, and, eventually, a chain reaction occurs and the fusion becomes self sustaining. That’s known as ignition. While the scientists have not yet accomplished ignition, today’s paper details that for the first time, the fuel produced more energy than it received–up to 2.6 times more energy.

That’s 10 times better than previous experiments. However, remember that only 1/200th of the original energy output by the lasers makes it to the hydrogen. That means that overall the reactor is still losing far more energy than it puts out.

Plenty of work still remains for fusion researchers. To accomplish ignition, the hydrogen needs to reach temperatures of hundreds of millions of degrees instead of just millions of degrees. It also needs to be subject to pressure levels a thousand times greater.

“There is more work to do and physics problems that need to be addressed before we get to the end,” lead author Omar Hurricane said in a release. “But our team is working to address all the challenges, and that’s what a scientific team thrives on.”

  1. Saying that they had a net positive reaction by only measuring the energy that crossed the hydrogen boundary is like measuring my cars gas efficiency by only measuring the gas used to drive down my driveway…on a 2 hour drive.

    You called it out in the article, just wish you had done the same in the headline.

    The guys at NIF are just guessing their way through this and that is not good science.

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  2. Nice! Always great to hear about progress!

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  3. I hope the Earth isn’t turned in to another sun. Love the idea of cheap abundant energy though. Could be what we need to start being humane to one another.

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  4. “Nestled inside of the cylinder is a tiny plastic pellet, and inside of the pellet are two forms of hydrogen plasma”

    Uhh. Wrong. There isn’t hydrogen plasma in the fuel pellet. It’s just “heavy hydrogen” otherwise know and deuterium.

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    1. I wish you guys would install disqus. I sorely miss editing after posting, for obvious reasons.

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  5. om the ladder of what`s possible this is the bottom rung…. there is countless free energy available but the technology is supressed…… no i`m not a nut … yes i know what i`m talking about…. no it`s not conjecture… yes i have seen it….. but the fact it`s soooooo simple and suppressed means just saying this even tho mocked here no doubt id better pack my bags before the feds land on the roof…..

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  6. Using the same definition of gain as used for this inertial fusion experiment at LLNL, the magnetic fusion community acheived this over a decade ago.

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