AUSTIN (KXAN) — This week, the Department of Energy announced a major breakthrough in nuclear science: fusion. Occurring on Dec. 5 at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, it was the first successful fusion experiment using lasers. Why should you care?
“If we are able to develop this technology and get it into the form of say, a power plant, then we could have large amounts of very low cost, clean energy that has the has one thing that wind and solar don’t have, it has an on and off switch,” said Dr. Joshua Rhodes, a research scientist at the University of Texas.
Rhodes studies energy systems, how they’re used and how they could evolve in the future. He said fusion is that evolution.
“We’ve had theoretically known how fusion could work for well over a century now, but we’ve never actually been able to get more energy out than we put in,” Rhodes said.
What exactly is a fusion reaction?
During the experiment, scientists used lasers to blast a tiny piece of fuel. That fuel ignited because of a combination of heat, pressure and time.
Rhodes said it took about two lightning bolts worth of energy to cause this reaction. The igniting fuel then released about two-and-a-half lightning bolts worth of energy, more than was put in.
Fusion doesn’t create dangerous waste. Nuclear fission, which involves splitting atoms, is the reaction used in modern nuclear power plants. As fission occurs, it creates nuclear waste.
During nuclear fusion, helium is created out of hydrogen gas. Helium is not a harmful gas, in fact, it is considered inert. The Earth’s helium supplies are facing a potential shortage. “So you start with hydrogen, you end up with helium, and more energy, hopefully,” Rhodes said.
While laboratories have been working on this experiment for decades, it actually happening was kind of a shock.
“It seems like things took a little bit more of a step than they were planning to.”
Fusion and clean energy in our future
Will we now be switching to fusion power? “I wouldn’t hold my breath for you know, a Mr. Fusion-powered DeLorean anytime soon,” Rhodes said, adding the technology is still a ways away.
“We’re probably still decades out before we’re going to have, you know, something that we’re ready to deploy at scale,” Rhodes noted, explaining that was once the case with wind and solar power.
President Joseph Biden said he would like to see fusion power plants operational in the next decade. While there are types of fusion power that are further along, like magnetic fusion, Rhodes said the laser-powered type displayed this week will take much longer.
“The joke was it’s been 50 years away for 50 years. Looks like we might have gotten a little closer this week.”