Scientists Make Another Breakthrough In Nuclear Fusion

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Andrew Follett Energy and Science Reporter
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A research team discovered a way to initiate nuclear fusion reactions in a process called “fast ignition” using a high-intensity laser, according to a Monday press release by the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Scientists believe that “fast ignition”could be a major breakthrough that could allow a fusion reaction to be controlled because it requires less “start-up” energy than other methods.

The research team is led by the University of California, San Diego, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and General Atomics, and published its findings Jan. 11 in the the scientific journal Nature Physics.

The group experimented with different laser configurations, and eventually achieved record levels of efficiency with a high-intensity laser. The laser is used to transfer enough energy to create an initial self-sustaining fusion reaction.

“Before we developed this technique, it was as if we were looking in the dark. Now, we can better understand where energy is being deposited so we can investigate new experimental designs to improve delivery of energy to the fuel,” Christopher McGuffey, assistant project scientist at the University of California, San Diego and co-author on the paper, said in a statement.

Other recent breakthroughs in fusion could restart the atomic age, an era when nuclear progress was lauded as a pinnacle of human achievement.

Lockheed Martin Skunk Works is developing a compact fusion reactor small enough to fit in a truck and would generate enough electricity to power 80,000 homes.

German engineers from the Max Planck Institute successfully activated an experimental nuclear fusion reactor and managed to suspend plasma for the first time. The reactor took 19 years and cost $1.1 billion to build. It contains over 470 tons of superconducting magnets, all of which need to be cooled to absolute zero. If the reactor fulfills expectations, it could demonstrate the first stable artificial nuclear fusion reaction of 2016.

Operational fusion power would put most other forms of electricity generation permanently out of business and could occur very soon. Fusion power could be “too cheap to meter,” meaning that the cost of generating new power would be below the cost of determining how much power an individual was using, effectively making electricity generation nearly free.

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