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Scientists have confirmed that on 8 August 2021, they were able to ignite the same chemical reaction that powers the Sun by pumping more power than the entire US electric grid into a small gold capsule.
For a sliver of a second, the force of 192 laser beams meant the same thermonuclear fire that powers the Sun was ignited, which really is mind-blowing stuff.
The breakthrough in fusion power means we’re now closer than ever to being able to harness chemical reactions with enough oomph to power the Sun, which generates energy by hurling together hydrogen atoms, in turn producing helium.
It’s also worth noting that the fusion reaction created by scientists was self-perpetuating, which means it didn’t immediately fizzle out.
Nuclear fusion takes place when two atoms combine, creating a heavier atom and releasing an enormous energy burst. The process is common in nature, but really hard to replicate in laboratories - mainly because an incredibly high-energy environment is needed to ensure the reaction continues.
The experiment was conducted by the National Ignition Facility at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California and has been detailed in three newly published papers - one in Physical Review Letters and two in Physical Review E.
While the papers argue that researchers achieved ‘ignition’ - which suggests nuclear fusion is possible - a practical fusion reactor is still far off.
If scientists were able to develop fully functioning fusion power plants, the sites would produce scores of energy using hydrogen from water as fuel.
This means the only waste produced would be helium and the risk of radiation would be eradicated.
In comparison, contemporary nuclear power plants use nuclear fission to create power, which is done by splitting the nuclei of heavy elements such as uranium.
Last year’s experiment used more than a quadrillion watts of power, a colossal amount of energy that was only released for a fraction of a second.
Of the ground-breaking experiment, Omar Hurricane - chief scientist for Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory’s inertial confinement fusion program - said: “The record shot was a major scientific advance in fusion research, which establishes that fusion ignition in the lab is possible at NIF.”
He added: “Achieving the conditions needed for ignition has been a long-standing goal for all inertial confinement fusion research and opens access to a new experimental regime where alpha-particle self-heating outstrips all the cooling mechanisms in the fusion plasma.”
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