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Scientists announce 'holy grail' breakthrough that could provide 'limitless clean energy'
Featured Image Credit: Roman Lacheev / Alamy Stock Photo/Dino Fracchia / Alamy Stock Photo

Scientists announce 'holy grail' breakthrough that could provide 'limitless clean energy'

Nuclear fusion is a great hope for the world going forward, and scientists in the USA just announced a major breakthrough

Scientists in the US have hailed a major breakthrough in their efforts to create nuclear fusion.

You’ll have to bear with us here, because it’s a pretty complex thing to get your head around, but it could have some huge implications for how energy is created in the future.

After all, it’s not rocket science, but it is arguably just as complicated as that.

The idea has been a preoccupation of physicists for years because – if it can be worked – it could provide an almost endless amount of clean energy, which could change the current trajectory of the world – certainly with regards to the environmental challenges we face.

This Tuesday (13 December) could go down as the day that this battle turned in our favour, as scientists announced that they managed to get more energy out of a fusion experiment than was put into it.

It might not sound that exciting, but honestly, that is seriously big news.

Nuclear fusion could be the 'holy grail' of energy production.
Zoonar GmbH/Alamy

The experiment in question was performed at the National Ignition Facility at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) in California, and could evidence that scientists are closer than ever to unleashing the ‘holy grail’ of energy for the world.

The idea is that pairs of light atoms are forced together to create a load of energy through ‘fusion’. As one of the scientists pointed out, this is similar to the reaction that takes place in our sun.

Nuclear fission – which is used in modern nuclear power – is the division of atoms to release energy, is the opposite of this method.

That’s problematic because whilst nuclear is broadly cleaner than forms of energy such as fossil fuels, it does create a lot of waste that is radioactive and dangerous, meaning it has to be stored very carefully for a very long time.

In the case of nuclear fusion, there is a lot of energy created and only a very small and short-lived amount of nuclear waste.

What’s more, it produces no greenhouse gas emissions, meaning that climate impact is zero.

That’s why this is so huge.

Stock photograph of a fusion reactor.
Cultura Creative RF/Alamy Stock Photo

Unfortunately, the problem is that these experiments in forcing the elements together and keeping them together require huge amounts of temperature and pressure.

Until today, no experiment had managed to get more energy out than was put in. Again, that’s why this is seriously big news.

This experiment – which cost $3.5 billion – saw a small amount of hydrogen heated and compressed by 192 hugely powerful laser beams.

The hydrogen was heated to 100 million Celsius – hotter than the centre of the sun – and compressed to more than 100 billion earth atmospheres.

In these conditions, the hydrogen collapses in on itself, the atoms fuse and energy is released.

Professor Jeremy P. Chittenden from Imperial College London called the experiment a ‘true breakthrough moment’ which proves that nuclear fusion ‘can indeed be achieved’.

Oxford University’s Professor Gianluca Gregori told BBC News: "Today's success rests upon the work done by many scientists in the US, UK and around the world.

“With ignition now achieved, not only fusion energy is unlocked, but also a door is opening to new science."

There's a long way to go, but we're closer than we were yesterday.
sakkmesterke/Alamy Stock Photo

However, there’s a long way left yet.

Chittenden warned that the experiment cost billions and only produced enough energy to boil 10 or 15 kettles.

He said: "If we want to get a power station [up and running], it may be that we have to perform these experiments once every second. And currently it's a day in between experiments".

Furthermore, even though the experiment got more energy out than the laser put into it, that did not include the power needed to make the lasers do their work.

That was a lot more than was produced from the fusion reaction.

So, there’s definitely work to do, but it’s still a start, and the future might look a little brighter than it did yesterday.

Topics: World News, Science, US News, Climate Change, Environment, Technology