Nuclear fusion and the recent breakthrough

  • IASbaba
  • August 19, 2021
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  • GS-3: Basic in Science; Security Challenges

Nuclear fusion and the recent breakthrough

In news: Recently, the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California announced that an experiment carried out in its National Ignition Facility has made a breakthrough in nuclear fusion research. 

  • In the experiment, lasers were used to heat a small target or fuel pellets. 
  • These pellets containing deuterium and tritium fused and produced more energy. 
  • The team noted that they were able to achieve a yield of more than 1.3 megajoules.

What exactly is nuclear fusion?

  • Nuclear fusion is defined as the combining of several small nuclei into one large nucleus with the subsequent release of huge amounts of energy. 
  • Nuclear fusion powers our sun and harnessing this fusion energy could provide an unlimited amount of renewable energy. 
  • It has many advantages, such as inexhaustibility of resources, no long-lived radioactive wastes, and almost no CO2 emissions.

How was the new breakthrough achieved?

  • The team used new diagnostics, improved laser precision, and even made changes to the design. 
  • They applied laser energy on fuel pellets to heat and pressurise them at conditions similar to that at the centre of our Sun. This triggered the fusion reactions
  • These reactions released positively charged particles called alpha particles, which in turn heated the surrounding plasma. 
    • At high temperatures, electrons are ripped from atom’s nuclei and become a plasma or an ionised state of matter. Plasma is also known as the fourth state of matter
  • The heated plasma also released alpha particles and a self-sustaining reaction called ignition took place.
  • Ignition helps amplify the energy output from the nuclear fusion reaction and this could help provide clean energy for the future.
  • The team noted an energy output of more than 1.3 megajoules

What is the significance of the experiment?

  • This is a major breakthrough as the output is higher than the previous highest energy achieved. 
  • Previously, laser fusion programmes faced several difficulties as scientists were not able to completely understand the plasma. 
  • Reproducing the conditions at the centre of the Sun (using fusion reaction) will allow humans to study states of matter including those found in stars and supernovae.
  • Scientists could also gain insights into quantum states of matter and even conditions closer and closer to the beginning of the Big Bang – the hotter we get, the closer we get to the very first state of the Universe

Connecting the dots:

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