On 13 December 2022, the U.S. Secretary of Energy announced a major scientific breakthrough from a Department of Energy (DOE) National Laboratory: Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) in California has carried out the first nuclear fusion experiment to achieve a net energy gain in the context of the National Ignition Facility (NIF) project.
What is nuclear fusion?
Nuclear fusion is a reaction that powers our main source of light and energy: the sun, as well as other stars. In the reaction, two (or more) atomic nuclei – encompassing protons and neutrons – fuse to form larger nuclei while releasing energy. This energy release occurs because the total mass of the resulting nuclei is less than the mass of the original nuclei that were fused. The leftover mass becomes energy that can be used to run a turbine-electrical power generator.
Making a star on Earth to create energy
Research scientists are attempting to recreate nuclear fusion – the reaction in which stars of our universe are generated – on Earth because the reaction can create enormous amounts of energy.
For nuclear fusion to occur, stellar-like temperatures (i.e., 100 million+ degrees) must be achieved. This process forces the positively charged nuclei to form plasma within a contained vector, overcome their repulsion by moving independently at speeds of around 1,000 km/s, and fuse.
Theoretically, if the energy generated from lab-controlled nuclear fusion could be harnessed and effectively stored on a global scale, this technology could transform how we fuel our homes, businesses, and vehicle transportation. The reaction is so efficient that 1 kg of fusion fuel could provide the same amount of energy as 10 million kg of fossil fuel.
Urgent demand for clean energy
Since the 19th century, Earth’s temperature has increased by approximately 1.1 °C. The amount of carbon dioxide has risen by 50% because greenhouse gases have been released from fossil fuels burnt for energy.
Average temperature increases should not exceed 1.5 °C by the start of the 22nd century, scientists are warning. However, there is an urgent demand for clean energy implementation on a global scale, as a UN report from October 2022 predicts Earth’s temperature will rise by at least 2.4 °C by 2100.4
An emerging solution for clean energy
Research scientists in this field highlight the fact that nuclear fusion may be the solution for generating clean energy while mitigating the effects of global warming. The process does not rely on using energy sourced from fossil fuels and does not produce greenhouse gas pollutants or long-lived radioactive waste. Fusion reactor materials can also be recycled or re-used within 100 years.
In essence, nuclear fusion provides a vision toward clean and low-price energy that is within our grasp, and which one day may be able to support our daily lives, economies, and technological evolutions.
A milestone achievement at LLNL
On 5 December 2022, the LLNL team at its National Ignition Facility (NIF) conducted a nuclear fusion experiment that resulted in a milestone achievement to date: energy breakeven – meaning that the experiment produced more energy than required to initiate the process.
The breakthrough represents a historic moment; it comes at a much-needed time, as the world faces high and unstable energy prices and unprecedented effects of global warming due to continual, global fossil-fueled energy use.
NIF development and testing spans over 50 years, and the facility leads the international laser fusion scientific community where other experiments operate, such as the Japanese FIREX and SG-III in China.
Advancing the research field
Now that LLNL’s research team has successfully demonstrated net-energy gain from a nuclear fusion experiment, there are still some technical challenges to overcome, such as:
- Replicating the experiment – if the conditions of the reaction are not favourable, it halts
- Further optimisation of all reaction conditions while ensuring that all components are robust enough to withstand the extreme environment necessary for nuclear fusion to occur
- Yielding and extracting an even higher energy output from the nuclear fusion reaction
The next R&D phase at LLNL – as well as associated research labs – will most likely involve replication and method development to achieve higher energy gains, and make advancements toward longer-term commercial viability. When it comes to vacuum technology support, Agilent products and expertise will continue to play an important role in advancing this research field.
In the meantime, sustainable lab solutions
While work continues to produce clean energy, what we can do now is make better choices that are in line with sustainability goals. Partnered with My Green Lab, Agilent supports scientists in achieving their lab sustainability goals. Several Agilent instruments also carry My Green Lab certification.
The opportunity to reduce the environmental impact of labs through smarter purchases is tremendous. By procuring instruments and products that will reduce waste, reduce energy consumption, reduce solvent/consumable consumption, and last longer (reducing the need to buy and discard more instruments), laboratories can operate in a more environmentally sustainable way.
Speak to a consultant at Chemetrix to learn more about sustainable instruments with technology that can help your lab achieve its sustainability goals. View our products to learn more about technology that’ll save energy and other resources for a more efficient lab.