As we navigate the implications of climate change, scientists continue to research how renewable energy sources can be improved in terms of sustainability. The preservation of Earth is dependent upon green energy and making sure the next generation has the equipment to handle global threats such as climate change is key.
On December 5, 2022, a significant nuclear fusion milestone was reached at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) in California. This will have a significant impact on the future of renewables, but what exactly was this breakthrough?
How does nuclear fusion work?
In simple terms, nuclear fusion is the process of bonding the nuclei of two or more light elements (typically hydrogen or isotopes of hydrogen), by the means of extreme pressure and heat.
The mass of the nucleus from the element created is slightly less than the mass put in to make it happen, and the leftover mass that is not in the nucleus is released as light energy, which can be captured and used as an energy source.
Nuclear fusion can be easily confused with nuclear fission, a process currently used in all nuclear power plants. During fission, the nucleus of a heavy element is split, which releases energy. Both have pros and cons with regards to sustainability, but in terms of safety, fusion is a safer process, as it does not release any long-lasting radioactive waste.
There are currently two main methods of fusion being researched by labs around the world. The method LLNL used to produce a net gain of energy is known as Inertial Confinement, where powerful lasers are used to compress a small pellet of hydrogen, allowing for high pressure and temperatures for fusion to take place.
The nuclear fusion milestone
Although it does not emit greenhouse gases, nuclear energy has not been considered renewable up until this point, because it does not produce more energy than is required to make it happen. However, after years of research and experimentation, scientists at the National Ignition Facility (NIF) at LLNL were able to successfully use nuclear fusion to create more energy output than input.
In this experiment, 3.15 megaJoules (MJ) were produced from a reaction that required 2.05 MJ of energy from a laser. While this is only enough energy to power a few kettles, it is symbolic of something much more significant.
This milestone demonstrated that nuclear energy can be used on a large scale, but as explained by Byron Farrow, Physics Teacher and Science Learning Leader at AISB (known by students as Mr. Farrow), this was already a known fact, it was simply a matter of getting the equipment to make it happen successfully.
It was one of those things that was always going to happen.Farrow
In terms of the scalability and repeatability of this experiment, Farrow adds, “The power required is greater than the total electrical generating capacity of the United States, (…) and that’s going to be difficult to reproduce.”
Nuclear energy in a world of renewables
The future of renewable energy is a heavily discussed topic in the modern world and nuclear often earns itself a substantial place in this discussion. How reliable is this source of energy now, and how will it change over time?
Widespread use of this type of nuclear energy is quite a ways off, due to the immense amount of research and experimentation needed to perfect such a process. Farrow adds, “It’s not something you’re [going to] see having huge effects within the next 5 to 10 years; I think we’re a good bit beyond that timeline.”
Unlike renewables such as solar and wind, which depend on certain weather patterns that are not always accessible, a notable benefit of nuclear fusion is that it is not reliant on external conditions. “It doesn’t matter what the weather is doing, it doesn’t matter where on Earth you are,” explains Farrow.
Nuclear energy can provide a baseline output in addition to other sources like wind and solar. It is unlikely nuclear will replace these other renewables, but rather act as a supplement to non renewables like fossil fuels.
What comes next?
With hard work from researchers around the world, more progress can be made toward commercial use of energy from nuclear fusion.
“The future is looking pretty bright in terms of energy needs” says Farrow
Although it will be a while before this energy source is widely available, this milestone holds great potential for the future of renewable energy in the battle against climate change.