A series of recent advances in the development of nuclear fusion means that the world is a little bit closer to an inexhaustible energy source.
- Billions of dollars contributed to international collaborative research has led to recent developments and breakthroughs in the field.
- Fusion development has evolved into a global effort with China, Russia, European, and U.S. physicists sharing information as they work toward a common goal.
- Combined knowledge and greater funding has helped the physicists unlock new developments.
- Fusion occurs when two light atomic nuclei combine, releasing an immense amount of energy—4 million times more than fossil fuels.
Why it’s news
If the key to nuclear fusion were to be discovered, the energy potential would be nearly limitless.
One of the major hurdles in successfully implementing fusion is the incredible amount of heat needed to begin the process. Tens of millions of degrees are required and no known material can survive such temperatures.
To resolve this issue, California-based National Ignition Facility is working on a solution that would use lasers to contain fusion fuel. In other parts of the world, similar facilities are experimenting with the value of magnets to achieve the same goal.
In the U.K., JET laboratory was able to contain thermal energy for about five seconds. Around 60 megajoules of energy were produced. While this is a relatively small amount of energy and a short amount of time, the experiment marked an important step in the journey for nuclear fusion.
JET’s experiment, though it did produce energy, used up more energy than it produced. No experiment has yet been able to achieve net energy gain from fusion. The magnets JET used to contain the heat were not able to withstand further heat from the experiment.
The experiment gave physicists an example of how to scale the process and potentially lead to a more useful output of energy—another step closer to success.
Chinese scientists were able to achieve a 17-minute fusion reaction earlier this year. Their experiment, however, ran on a fuel source that would be impractical for any larger operations.
There’s no telling when nuclear fusion could be a cost-effective energy source, but a surge of startups seeking to find alternate energy sources could lead the way.
TAE Technologies, backed by Google and Chevron, is one among many startups funded by venture capital investments seeking alternative solutions to the problems fusion still has.