Sun barely visible past the Earth to represent the potential emergence of nuclear fusion

What Last Year’s Nuclear Fusion Breakthrough Means for the Energy Industry

by kirkcoburn
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We’ve been studying nuclear fusion for almost a century. And in December 2022, scientists confirmed a significant breakthrough that may pave the way for abundant and clean nuclear energy in the future. This is excellent news for the energy industry, and every player in the game should be watching closely.

At the US National Ignition Facility in California, researchers say their fusion experiments released more energy than was pumped in by their enormous, high-powered lasers. This landmark achievement is called energy gain, fusion ignition, or ignition.

“Great! Let’s Go Nuclear”

Slow down, Tiger! The technology is neither ready for regular industrial use nor for use in our grid to provide power for homes or autos. Moreover, there are still significant dangers surrounding the use of that clean nuclear power. It’s not going to solve any climate crisis (yet). But we’ve made a meaningful step forward. 

So for the energy industry, this means all eyes are on nuclear power for the moment. 

How Did it Happen? Perseverance FTW

In December, the White House Office of Science and Technology policy director — Dr. Arati Prabhakar — dumbed down the process for lay people when she said, “They shot a bunch of lasers at a pellet of fuel, and more energy was released from that fusion ignition than the energy of the lasers going in. This is such a tremendous example of what perseverance really can achieve.”

And persevere, we do! Here’s a much-abbreviated timeline of the history of nuclear fusion research:

  • In the 1930s, scientists realized nuclear fusion was possible.
  • In the 1940s, they started to look for ways to initiate and control fusion reactions to create energy.
  • By the mid-1950s, scientists understood that controlled fusion had no military uses (and this research had nothing to do with thermonuclear weapons).
  • In the 1960s, after the invention of the laser, researchers sought to heat fuels with a laser so suddenly that the plasma would not have time to escape before it was burned in the reaction. Its inertia would trap it. This new approach was named “inertial confinement.”
  • By the late 1960s, we had several fusion devices. But no one knew which approach might lead to practical fusion power.
  • But in the mid-1970s, the US decided to focus on one device, the tokamak.

What Happened Next?

Over the following decades, we spent several billions of dollars on the tokamak, building larger and larger devices. And remember, billions of dollars in the US were worth a lot more during the eighties. So significant progress was made, but the plasmas still weren’t stable. 

For 50 years, that’s been our primary goal, focusing nearly all research on deuterium-tritium fuel (DT). DT fuel undergoes fusion reactions at a lower temperature than any other fuel but has some drawbacks. DT fuel releases almost all its energy in the form of neutrons, which can only be turned into energy through the expensive process of heating water to create steam, which drives a turbine.

The 2022 Experiment, in Lay Person’s Terms

Imagine shooting a 12 ga. shotgun at a plastic water bottle. In the usual way of things, the bottle will explode. Water sprays up and out, maybe ten or twenty feet, and falls to the ground. The experiment is over.

With the DT nuclear fusion model, some scientists believe the amount of energy created could cause the water to shoot into the sky and back at you, the shooter, and in all directions. It would travel faster than the speed of light. The water would blast right through you. It could keep going for miles. We’re not sure. The potential for energy created by nuclear fusion is multiplied by that much. But in this specific experiment, researchers made a 50% energy gain, and that’s still huge. 

What Is Nuclear Fusion, Anyway?

Image of the Sun as a represetation of fusion and energy

Nuclear fusion is the process by which two light atomic nuclei combine to form a single heavier atom while releasing massive amounts of energy.

These reactions occur in a state of matter called plasma. Think of it as flame, a hot, charged gas made of positive ions and free-moving electrons with unique properties distinct from gases, solids, or liquids. This reaction powers the sun and all other stars. 

About the Experiment

The National Ignition Facility is a massive complex at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory near San Jose, CA. That’s where researchers perform experiments to recreate processes unleashed inside nuclear bombs on a much smaller scale. These experiments are also stepping stones toward clean fusion power.

In this experiment, researchers fired 192 giant lasers into a tiny (1 cm long) gold cylinder called a hohlraum. The intense energy heats the container to more than 3m degrees C — 545 times hotter than the sun’s surface — and bathes a tiny fuel pellet in X-rays. That pellet is smaller than a piece of corn. The process triggers a rocket-like implosion, driving temperatures and pressures to extremes only seen inside stars and nuclear detonations. 

The Raw Materials (Something to Which We Pay Attention These Days)

Each fusing pair of hydrogen nuclei produces a lighter helium nucleus and a burst of energy, according to Einstein’s famous E=mc2 equation. The other raw materials include deuterium, extracted from seawater, and tritium — a hydrogen atom with two neutrons and one proton — made from lithium. 

If you’ve been reading for a while, you already know about lithium extraction processes. It’s expensive in various ways — financially, socially, and environmentally. You’re also very familiar with gold, another critical part of this experiment.

Energy Expenditure Hurdles

Still, immense hurdles remain. For instance, while the pellet released more energy than the lasers put in, the calculation does not include the 300 or so megajoules needed to fire up 190+ lasers. The lasers used in this experiment fire once a day. But a physical power plant capable of creating energy for a small town would need to heat targets ten times every second or almost continuously. The experiment is losing a ton of energy there.

Think of it this way, if we spent $500 to join a club that allows us to invest another $100 to create $150, we’d still lose $450. 

Raw Materials Cost

Then there is the cost of the targets. They cost tens of thousands of dollars, each requiring pure gold. The targets must cost pennies for a nuclear fusion power plant to stay in the black. Taking a macro-view of the geology and mining industries now, we know that gold is not cheap to acquire. Also, with a possible recession pending at the moment, the price of gold on hand is skyrocketing. Some experts believe it will be $4,000 an ounce by the end of 2023

Water Requirements

Another question is, how will we transform the energy into heat? That answer may lie with a water-based solution. Again, we’re not sure. But we may need to pump incredible amounts of water to a nuclear fusion plant. From there, the steam will turn turbines. There is a cost involved, and it limits the possibilities. We’ll need to be thoughtful about where a plant is located, although the chilly Great Lakes region might be perfect. Only time will tell.

The Future Benefits of Nuclear Fusion for Industry

The advent of reliable fusion energy raises the prospect of ample clean power. Fusion reactions release no greenhouse gases (GHGs) or radioactive waste. Researchers say one kilogram of fusion fuel will provide as much energy as 10 million kilograms of fossil fuel. Those numbers are staggering, and they’re what makes these experiments so valuable to our future.

Think of the possibilities! If we could power our homes, vehicles, and plants with clean energy, what would happen to the current paradigm? Production of textiles and technology could become more affordable. Reduced transportation and cold storage costs could decrease food prices.

Dr. Kim Budil of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory said with enough investment over the following decades, this “research could put us in a position to build a power plant.” And remember, we’re not the only players in this game. A power plant based on alternative technology used at the Joint European Torus (JET) in Oxfordshire might be ready soon.

Summing It Up: It Will Be Decades Before We Go Nuclear

The December experiment taught us that we could generate a 50% increase in energy from expensive lasers striking a costly target. Currently, the costs are too high to make nuclear fusion a reality. But that can change. 

VCs could look into more affordable laser production and alternatives for raw materials. Mining operations that focus on lithium and gold will become more valuable, and massive water transportation and storage devices need to be developed. However, if you read my note a few weeks back, you will know that lithium is running out. Eventually, nuclear fusion may create the electricity we need to power our planet. But it’s going to be a while. 

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