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Human Achievement of the Day: Breakthrough toward Unlimited Clean and Cheap Energy

sun-epaShocking as it might seem, some of us at CEI agree with environmentalists that reducing personal waste is a good idea. Voluntarily reducing our individual energy consumption and waste material can have a number of benefits, including saving your household money!

However, we also believe that the solutions to global environmental issues will not come from taxes or limitations on consumption, but rather from scientific advancement—whether it’s finding new ways to feed the world, methods of providing unlimited clean water, or by creating an energy source that is cheap, safe, unlimited, and “green.”

Researchers in California made a great leap toward creating a source of virtually unlimited energy this past year as they strive to harness the power of nuclear fusion—the same process that powers stars like our sun.

Scientists at the National Ignition Facility (NIF) at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) announced that in the last year “for the first time the energy released through the fusion reaction exceeded the amount of energy being absorbed by the fuel.” This is a significant step toward an energy source that would be plentiful and environmentally friendly.

Currently, nuclear energy is produced through fission, where the nucleus of an atom is split apart, releasing enormous amounts of energy. In nuclear fusion, the nuclei of atoms fuse together and create massive amounts of energy. While scientists can create fusion; for example, a hydrogen bomb which is also known as a fusion bomb uses the power of nuclear fission—so, a nuclear bomb—in order to achieve fusion. The holy grail in nuclear fusion research is to find a method of causing fusion that takes less energy than the fusion reaction creates, which they call “ignition.” Perhaps unsurprisingly, attempting to replicate the condition inside of a star has been no easy task for scientists.

If they can find a way to utilize the power of nuclear fusion, however, the implications for human progress are greater than the power of a thousand nuclear bombs. First of all, nuclear fusion would be effective; Just one gram deuterium and tritium—the fuel used in fusion— produce nearly 10 million times the amount of energy a gram of fossil fuels produces and there’s enough deuterium (found in water) on earth for tens of thousands to millions of years. By all accounts, fusion is a safer form of energy production, as there is virtually no chance of a meltdown and radiation is non-issue. As Dr Alejaldre, a researcher working at Iter—a French project attempting to produce controlled fusion, described it “a Fukushima-like accident is impossible at Iter because the fusion reaction is fundamentally safe. Any disturbance from ideal conditions and the reaction will stop. A runaway nuclear reaction and a core meltdown are simply not possible.”

Additionally, the radiation produced by fusion is many orders of magnitude less than with nuclear fission and unlike with fission, fusion requires no shipments of radioactive material into or out of the plant—it is created and burned within the power plant. Furthermore, while the waste produced by nuclear fission remains dangerously radioactive for millions of years, fusion reactions produce no radioactive waste and the radioactive elements used in fusion have a much shorter half-life—only 12.3 years.

The researchers at the Lawrence Livermore lab aimed the world’s most powerful laser at a pea-sized target containing nuclear fuel and created a fusion reaction, but only for a fraction of a second:

The NIF uses a system of 192 laser beams to heat deuterium and tritium atoms held inside a capsule the size of a ball-bearing, which is placed inside a cryogenically cooled, pencil-eraser-sized cylinder called a “hohlraum” (German for “hollow room”). The energy from the laser's pulse subjects the deuterium-tritium fuel to pressures and temperatures approaching the conditions at the center of the sun.

In essence, they created a mini star in their lab. While they weren’t able to produce more power than the experiment consumed—they didn’t achieve ignition—they are getting closer with each experiment. Whether it’s the United State’s project, the French experiments, or another country, creating a viable controlled fusion reaction would be a huge leap forward for all of human kind.

About Human Achievement Hour (HAH): Human Achievement Hour is about paying tribute to the human innovations that allow people around the globe to live better, fuller lives, while also defending the basic human right to use energy to improve the quality of life of all people. Human Achievement Hour is the counter argument to Earth Hour, and promotes looking to technology and innovation to help solve environmental problems instead of reverting to the “dark ages,” by symbolically refusing to use electricity for an hour.