If we care so much about energy, nuclear fusion is the answer, and it is possible

Humanity faces an imminent challenge of massive energy generation. The super-technological society is developing by leaps and bounds and we urgently need an energy source that meets the high demand.

The inescapable fact of climate change and the necessary replacement of fossil fuels poses an immediate challenge.

The announcement of nuclear fusion in recent days is a scientific milestone that opens the doors for all of us to think about the exploitation of potentially safe, clean and inexhaustible energy.

Did someone say it’s for tomorrow? No. What does this milestone mean? It means that it is certainly feasible; that from now on it can be repeated, that in one way or another the merger is here, to stay.

we can’t stay out

Achieving nuclear fusion requires international public-private collaboration and extraordinary funding. The US, Japan and China are already betting on its development from all possible fronts.

The US has launched a very aggressive public funding program for companies that labs can join in recent months. Can this speed up the process? Yes, it could be, playing with a public-private combination, that there will be. From the private initiative, which as a whole is currently investing billions of euros, there is talk of 2040 as the date to celebrate success.

Europe cannot be left out of that race. And there are two tracks to run: one is magnetic confinement (which it is already pursuing) and the other is inertial confinement (in which the historic achievement announced last week is framed). To be left out of one of them and for another nation to achieve success before just that unsupported line would mean losing a world of technological dominance with enormous and incalculable consequences. Technological domain that has already begun to be discussed as a potential geopolitical change. This is not the time to say “I am magnetic” or “I am inertial”, but to join forces and continue with both lines.

what has been achieved

Milestone Achieved: On December 5, 2022, the National Ignition Facility (NIF) at LLNL achieved an energy of 3.15 Megajoules (million joules; 1 joule = 0.24 calories) through nuclear fusion reactions using a laser with an energy of 2.05 Megajoules incident on the target.

For the first time in history, a nuclear fusion device of any kind, in this case using the laser inertial confinement method, has achieved ignition and net energy gain in the laboratory.

Net energy gain (1.05 megajoules in this case) indicates that more energy was obtained by fusion reactions than that which came out of the laser, distributed in 192 beams.

The target was a gold cylinder open at its ends approximately 1 cm long and 5 mm wide. It contains in its center a spherical capsule where the fuel is, hydrogen in its forms of deuterium and tritium, in a layer a few hundred microns thick.

After the experiment, it has been confirmed that the fundamental mechanism of propagation of the fusion thermal wave that moves from the interior of the fuel capsule, where the fusion reactions begin, towards the exterior of it, causing more and more reactions of fusion, it works.

The fact was established in experiments carried out from January to September 2022, reaching 1.3 Megajoules with a 1.7 Megajoule laser.

Improved illumination conditions of the combustible target by the laser and more precise manufacturing of the target have allowed refinement of the experiment based on an idea formulated in 1972 by John Nuckolls also at LLNL.

With these experiments, the certain possibility of efficiently obtaining energy converted into power within a high-tech system such as a reactor is reaffirmed.

Thus, it is a huge step to believe that nuclear fusion can be the massive and concentrated high-density source of energy that Humanity needs, combined with renewables and hydrogen, in a centralized and delocalized electric power generation scheme.

We will have energy from inexhaustible resources (hydrogen), clean, with short-lived waste that can be assumed and recyclable in reasonable times, and safe, because it implies a system that turns on and off in a controlled manner.

The steps that still need to be taken

There is still a long way to go in fusion using lasers or ions to make effective this energy extracted from the union of hydrogen nuclei:

  • Research and development in target lighting systems (laser, ions) that should increase their efficiency and the ability to repeat the pulses.

  • Refinement of DT fuel capsule manufacturing with the right precision and manufacturing speed.

  • Research on the systems of the chamber that houses these reactions using materials resistant to radiation and low neutron activation.

  • Development of energy extraction systems and the efficient reproduction of the used tritium.

Spain is in

The development by magnetic confinement has as its unique name the international ITER project, which will obtain ignition (perhaps also other private facilities) in the coming years. Europe participates in ITER.

The IFMIF-DONES is a neutron source that is going to be built in Granada, and it is essential to understand the materials under irradiation. We must wait for the construction of the power demonstrator reactor scheduled for 2060-2070.

Europe launched a large laser fusion facility design research project (2007-2014) attracting very substantial national public funding in the case of the UK and the Czech Republic, known as HiPER. Spain also participated. HiPER allowed to bring together European scientists in all fields to identify, systematize and where appropriate solve the science and technology problems of inertial confinement fusion using laser.

In Spain, the Guillermo Velarde Nuclear Fusion Institute (IFN-GV) has existed at the Polytechnic University of Madrid for 40 years, and it has had an agreement in force for some decade with LLNL, the architects of the experiment that has just been announced. The Institute is the result of the work begun by Professor Guillermo Velarde (Edward Teller Medal from the LLNL Laboratory) with a small team (including Professors José María Martínez-Val, Emilio Minguez and myself) in the early 1970s at the Junta of Nuclear Power.

The IFN-GV was created exclusively for this fine line of research on laser-inertial confinement fusion.

Since its inception, the IFN-GV has collaborated with the LLNL in the development of codes for the design of the target, atomic and nuclear data, activation and applied security (Javier Sanz, UNED-UPM), among others, to the design of the NIF , and research into advanced materials resistant to irradiation.

Along with this pioneering Institute and the largest, Spain has researchers working on nuclear fusion at other universities: the UNED, the Polytechnic of Madrid, the University of Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, the University of Valladolid and the University of Castilla-La Mancha. .

We are in the race that will transform the world. Let’s keep going!

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