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US Scientists Achieve Nuclear Fusion: What is it & How Was it Done?

Team StoryWeavers|December 14, 2022, 16:45 IST|

Inside the National Ignition Facility, where the experiment was conducted. Source: Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory

The scientific community and the rest of the world woke up to groundbreaking news on 14 December 2022. Scientists in the United States have successfully achieved nuclear fusion – something that was thought to be nearly impossible.

The US Department of Energy announced that scientists at the National Laboratory in California achieved net energy, which means the amount of energy used to create the nuclear reaction was less than the energy produced by it. It’s never been done before, and the implications of this monumental moment are huge. It will help make an alternative energy source that is completely clean and renewable in the future.

What is nuclear fusion?

Fusion is how the sun and other stars create energy and shine so bright. Nuclear fusion is a way to simulate the same energy on Earth in the form of heat. In the process, two or more atoms are fused together using a massive amount of energy (in this case, lasers) to form a big atom. The process produces a lot of heat, which can be used as artificial energy. Usually, hydrogen isotopes deuterium and tritium are used for the procedure.

A successful nuclear fusion provides clean, carbon-free, renewable energy, much like the energy we get from the sun! Scientists across the world have been studying nuclear fusion for decades since it provides clean energy that is limitless and requires small amounts of hydrogen to create. However, creating energy using fusion does take a lot of specialised equipment; hence, its commercialisation is yet to begin.

Difference between nuclear fusion and fission?

Nuclear fission is the process we use today to power nuclear power plants and generate electricity. While fusion involves combining two atoms together, fission is the opposite, wherein an atom is split into two. Heat is generated in this process as well, which is then used as energy. However, nuclear fission creates a lot of toxic waste, which needs to be stored and processed carefully. It also requires other unattainable isotopes. Hence, fusion is considered to be the better alternative.

The historical experiment

In this groundbreaking experiment, US scientists used 192 super high-powered lasers to focus on one small target, the size of a small seed. The target was a tiny capsule containing deuterium and tritium. The lasers used about 2.05 megajoules of energy and heated it to over 3 million degrees, thus simulating the same environmental conditions of a star. The process worked, where the atoms merged together, creating more energy and heat – about 3 megajoules– more than the 192 lasers.

The quest isn’t finalised yet, as it needs to be recreated further on a larger scale. But history has been created for now, and with it, hope for the future.

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About the Author

Madhavi is passionate about everything to do with books, art, literature, films, trivia and food. A former journalist, she believes that asking questions makes life interesting.

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