Fuss Over Fusion

2nd January 2023

US scientists have announced a major breakthrough in their efforts to create nuclear fusion energy after they were able to produce more energy from a fusion experiment than was put in, for the first time, ever.

What Is Nuclear Fusion? 

Whereas current nuclear power plants split atoms in a process known as ‘fission’ to generate energy, ‘fusion’ generates energy by fusing atoms together (hence ‘fusion’), which is the same process that powers our sun. The fusion process, which can actually create temperatures much hotter than the sun, is achieved by combining lighter elements (hydrogen) to make a heavier one (helium). Fusion reactors use powerful magnetic fields (magnetised target fusion) to control charged gas/plasma and keep it within a container.

The Benefits of Fusion 

Fusion power, which was described by National Geographic (2019) as the “holy grail for the future of nuclear power” is safer than fission nuclear power, produces very little radioactive waste, and is a carbon-free energy source.

The Breakthrough 

This latest nuclear fusion a breakthrough was made at the National Ignition Facility at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) in California. The experiment reportedly involved focusing 192 lasers on a small metal can to heat and compress the hydrogen fuel (to more than 100 billion times that of Earth’s atmosphere). This created temperatures multiple times hotter than the centre of the sun (100 million degrees Celsius), with the result being a brief nuclear fusion reaction. The significant aspect of the reaction on this occasion (it has been tried many times before) was that more energy was produced from the fusion experiment than was put in to make it happen.

What Does This Mean For Your Organisation? 

Now more than ever, the race is on to find an effective way to supply a limitless, clean, cost-effective, and safe power source which can benefit us all, help the environment, plus create new opportunities in a whole new sector. Although producing more energy from a fusion experiment than was put in may not sound like a major breakthrough, the complexity of being able to generate massive temperatures and pressure in a controlled and safe way shouldn’t be underestimated. This result is being hailed as a turning point and major step which shows that the nuclear fusion testing methods work and brings the promise of clean, limitless energy without lots of radioactive waste one step closer. Success at scale with nuclear fusion energy could benefit not just humanity but the whole planet and could be a major way to tackle global warming challenges.

The potential importance of nuclear fusion energy has meant that there has been a race to be first to harness it in different locations around the world, even in the UK. For example, a nuclear demonstration plant is being built at Culham Oxfordshire by a Canadian company (with Jeff Bezos as a backer). It is estimated to cost around $400m and aims to be operational by 2025. When ready, it could give the UK government the chance to develop a fusion industry within the UK and be seen to be at the cutting edge of the new industry, which is the justification for the investment.