Limitless nuclear fusion energy is one step closer thanks to burning plasma experiment

We could be a step closer to the commercially viable production of limitless nuclear fusion energy.
Chris Young
The Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.
The Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

National Ignition Facility 

A group of nuclear fusion researchers at the National Ignition Facility (NIF) achieved self-heating "burning plasma" for the first time ever in January, bringing commercially viable nuclear fusion one step closer.

Nuclear fusion, which mimics the energy-generating method of the Sun and the stars, has the potential to provide practically limitless clean energy.

Now, a new analysis of the plasma, published in a paper in the journal Nature Physics, reveals surprising new details that could help the scientific community finally achieve the holy grail of nuclear fusion — net energy production.

Analyzing the NIF's world's first burning plasma

Since 2009, NIF scientists have been using an array of 192 lasers to shoot high-energy pulses at a small fuel capsule made up of deuterium and tritium. The researchers apply the destructive, intense heat of the lasers to cause the atoms to fuse into helium and release massive amounts of energy.

Earlier this year, NIF researchers released a study detailing how they could achieve self-heating "burning plasma", which would allow them to do away with the lasers, creating a self-perpetuating heat source and source of energy. During their experiments, they created burning plasma for only a few nanoseconds, but it was enough to glean some vital and surprising information about its properties.

Now, the new analysis of this process, called inertial confinement fusion (ICF), shows that it behaves in unexpected ways. The researchers found, for example, that the ions inside their burning plasma have higher energy than their models predicted.

“This implies that the ions undergoing fusion have more energy than expected in the highest-performing shots, something that isn't predicted — or able to be predicted — by the normal radiation hydrodynamics codes used to simulate ICF implosions,” Alastair Moore, lead author of the new paper, explained in a press statement.

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A step towards "robust and reproducible ignition"

The researchers compared the unexpected behavior to the Doppler effect, which results in shifts in tone in a police siren as it drives closer and then further away from a listener.

Ultimately, the team believes that understanding the unusual behavior could help bring the scientific community an important step closer to achieving net nuclear fusion energy, whereby a fusion reactor would produce more energy than it requires to run in the first place.

"Understanding the cause of this departure from hydrodynamic behavior could be important for achieving robust and reproducible ignition," the team wrote in the paper.

Nuclear fusion could one day remove our reliance on fossil fuels by producing practically endless energy via the same method as the stars. While many companies have claimed to be on the cusp of producing commercially viable nuclear fusion energy, we are still likely some way off, as key hurdles involving the harnessing of that power via enormously powerful magnets still lie in the way.

Still, big breakthroughs this year include the NIFs production of burning plasma and research from Princeton University scientists that pinpointed the origin of a process that can damage nuclear fusion tokamak reactors.

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