Understanding the fusion energy breakthrough announced by the U.S.

Source: The post is based on the following articles

“Understanding the fusion energy breakthrough announced by the U.S.” published in The Hindu on 15th November 2022.

“Energy breakthrough” published in the Business Standard on 15th November 2022.

“A civilizational pivot? Don’t hold your breath” published in the Livemint on 15th November 2022.

Syllabus: GS – 3 – Science and Technology developments and their applications and effects in everyday life.

Relevance: About nuclear fusion.

News: Recently, United States government officials announced that a the National Ignition Facility (NIF) had achieved a significant milestone in nuclear fusion research. It produced 153% as much energy as went into triggering it.

About the nuclear fusion research
Must read: US scientists take quantum leap on the road to create nuclear fusion energy for generating power

Ways to achieve nuclear fusion: There are three ways to trigger nuclear fusion.

1) Setting off a fission explosion: The explosion momentarily creates conditions that trigger a fusion explosion. For instance, the hydrogen bomb. This process is not used to create commercial power.

2) Inertial confinement: It puts fusion material in a chamber made of a material that absorbs energy. The chamber is bombarded with high-energy lasers and it absorbs energy until destroyed in a fusion reaction. For example, the NIF.

3) Magnetic confinement: It involves trapping hydrogen plasma (electrically charged gas) within a magnetic field to safely apply heat and pressure. It is considered to be more technologically mature than inertial confinement. For example, International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER).

Condition for chain fusion reaction: For a fusion chain reaction, the energy released by the initial reaction needs to set the stage for more reactions.

Significance of fusion energy: Nuclear fusion fuel is usually isotopes of hydrogen such as deuterium which is abundantly available, or relatively easily produced.

What are the challenges associated with the recent achievement?

The NIF fusion facility is a highly sophisticated system with tiny moving parts. Even small changes in input conditions can lead to large variations in output. So, replicating the same in other places is challenging.

-For fusion to be truly gainful, the energy released by the reactions needs to be greater than the energy going into the lasers and not just the energy delivered to the hohlraum. This hasn’t yet been achieved.

Note: At the NIF lasers fire at a hohlraum not at the capsule directly.

-The road to a power plant from the NIF’s current achievement isn’t well-understood.

What are the challenges associated with nuclear fusion?

-As stars mature, other elements are also produced via fusion. But simulating stellar conditions on Earth is hard.

-Complex, expensive machinery using massive power is needed to safely create conditions of intense pressure and temperatures of above 35 million degrees Celsius.

-Creating the above two situations and controlling fusion to produce stable power is even more difficult.

What is the significance of the recent achievement in nuclear fusion?

a) The research infused a hope that nuclear fusion could be commercially viable, although it is still at least 15 to 20 years in the future, b) It should lead to more investments, including private sector investments, in fusion research and development, especially at ITER.

American achievement has been described as a ‘civilizational pivot’ by some scientists. However, Indian scientists must clean up India’s energy mix cheaply and safely by expanding wind, solar and other sources.

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