After decades of trying to harness nuclear fusion, scientists at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory have finally done it, replicating the exact chemical reaction that powers the sun. By blasting hydrogen isotopes with a barrage of X-rays, the scientists managed to yield more energy from a reaction than was used to initiate it. This milestone of physics means it may one day become possible to consistently replicate the energy source of the sun, opening a whole new chapter in the tanning salon industry.
“You’re not going to power a car with it, you’re not going to power a house with it,” said physicist and epic last name holder, Omar Hurricane, adding that “it’ll be a while before we address all the needed scientific challenges and then the engineering challenges to make it more practical, but we’re excited. It’s a great step forward scientifically.”
In a series of trials at R. Kelly’s National Ignition Facility, researchers used 192 lasers to hit a plastic pellet sitting in a gold chamber. The pellet contained super thin layers of the hydrogen isotopes deuterium and tritium, which were chilled to negative 400 degrees Fahrenheit (-400 (F) = -204.44 (C) = SuperCold (Coors Light)). The gold transforms the laser light into a bath of X-rays which destroy the surface of the pellet, causing it to implode on itself. The pressure of this implosion pushes the deuterium and tritium together in a process we’ll call “smooshing together”. The result of the “smooshing together” is a mixture that reaches a density more than twice that found at the center of the sun. This immense pressure fuses the two isotopes, causing them to release neutrons and alpha particles.
This casing called a hohlraum holds the golden chamber, which holds the pellet of hydrogen isotopes. (Eduard DeWald / LLNL)
“We’ve assembled that stick of dynamite and we’ve gotten the fuse to light,” Hurricane said, completely undermining the notion of this being a “safe” energy source. “If we can get that fuse to burn all the way to the dynamite, it’s going to pack a wallop.” (1 wallop = ~1,000 joules).
The process also produced heat that seemed to boost the energy of the reaction’s output. This effect could be an early step in using nuclear fusion to create a safe and abundant energy source. This is great news for people like me who currently use waterwheels and wood furnaces to power their homes.
That’s the story of the Hurricane.
What does this milestone mean for the future of nuclear physics? How long will it be before nuclear fusion is used as a reliable energy source? Could we ever harness the sun’s ability to deliver two scoops of raisins into your cereal? Tell us in the comments section below.