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From Reuters: U.S. to reveal scientific milestone on fusion energy

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Timothy Gardner reports:

WASHINGTON, Dec 12 (Reuters) – The U.S. Department of Energy on Tuesday will announce that scientists at a national lab have made a breakthrough on fusion, the process that powers the sun and stars that one day could provide a cheap source of electricity, three sources with knowledge of the matter said.

The scientists at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California have achieved a net energy gain for the first time, in a fusion experiment using lasers, one of the people said.

Running an electric power plant off fusion presents tough hurdles however, such as how to contain the heat economically and to keep lasers firing consistently. Other methods of fusion use magnets instead of lasers.

See Reuters for the complete article.
Technicians use a service system lift at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory
Technicians use a service system lift to access the target chamber interior for inspection and maintenance at the National Ignition Facility (NIF), a laser-based inertial confinement fusion research device, at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory federal research facility in Livermore, California, United States in 2008. Philip Saltonstall/Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory/Handout via REUTERS

Thoughts on fusion energy

Eric Hedin writes:

Fusion energy development has focused on either inertial confinement fusion (reported on in the article) or magnetic confinement fusion (such as in ITER). 

In either case, it takes energy to bring about the release of nuclear fusion energy.  The milestone reported on in the Reuters link is that the inertial confinement fusion experiment at LLL has produced more fusion energy than it took to power the “shot.”  

Inertial confinement fusion works by concentrating numerous powerful laser beams on a small target fuel pellet composed of deuterium or a deuterium-tritium mix (frozen isotopes of hydrogen). The laser beams heat and compress the fuel pellet until the conditions for nuclear fusion occur, and that releases the nuclear energy “stored” in the pellet.  There’s no violation of energy conservation.

Fusion occurs in the cores of stars due to the heat and density resulting from the enormous gravitational compression of the stellar gases (mostly hydrogen and helium).  We can’t use gravitational compression in reactors on earth, since it requires a star-sized mass to attain sufficient heating and compression due to gravity.

Fossil fuels have served humanity’s energy needs remarkably well, and with a theistic worldview, we can be thankful for the foresight that went into preparing them and making them available to us.  But fossil fuels are limited and non-renewable on relevant timescales for human needs. 

Nuclear fusion energy, currently progressing in its development, would provide energy for an almost unlimited time frame, since the fuel is based on the naturally occurring isotope of hydrogen, deuterium.  The tritium can be made in an ongoing fashion within the reactor itself.  It needs to be made, since tritium has a relatively short half-life of 12.3 years.

Fusion energy reactors of either design would be much safer and cleaner than any currently existing nuclear fission reactors.  Fusion reactors could not fail in any catastrophic manner leading to “meltdown” or any sort of a runaway nuclear reaction.  Could fusion energy be God’s design for supplying humanity’s energy needs in a future era?

Sorry to be a wet blanket, but this approach to fusion energy will not produce an operating power plant in any foreseeable future. The energy and expense that goes into the infrastructure, technology, generating the laser pulses and even just the fusion targets are far more than can reasonably be expected from the electricity produced in any likely operating scenario. Surely the products of the fusion explosions plaster the insides of the chamber and all the expensive lenses and monitoring equipment with vapours and deposits that need regular cleaning. Then there are the hundreds of expensive scientists at work on it, along with their edge-of-possibility technology. This research setup is orders of magnitude more expensive and complex than fission power plants, and you know how complex and expensive they are. Reducing the inertial confinement approach to an operational level via engineering would take many decades and billions of dollars more, even if possible at all. While I think the research is fascinating, we shouldn't kid ourselves that it will generate any net electrical power in our life times. The Tokamak approach to fusion energy is a somewhat better one, but it too has severe limitations and immense scientific and engineering hurdles to surmount before a realistic power plant can be designed. I hope there are other, better approaches to fusion energy, but I haven't seen any that look promising enough to bet on. Fasteddious
Martin: Fortunately, these guys are not biologists …so hopefully, what they claim is a fact and not some misrepresentation …
Like cold fusion? Sir Giles
Fortunately, these guys are not biologists ...so hopefully, what they claim is a fact and not some misrepresentation ... martin_r
To Seversky @1; You're right, of course, that a future fusion reactor would be the result of design and hard work by human physicists and engineers, just like an automobile represents the work of many people. But most cars run on fossil fuels that are available to us through some pretty involved, long-term geological processes. Likewise, fusion energy reactors would only be possible if the nuclear binding energy per nucleon increased with increasing atomic number (up until iron) and if the elements easiest to fuse were available in sufficient quantities on Earth. These sorts of conditions are not attained by human engineering, but are pre-existent conditions on earth and within our universe. For such alignment of conditions to meet our needs, we can reasonably see "God's design." Caspian
Seversky at 1, Get a clue. You think creativity comes from random atoms jostling around in people's brains? I know a number of creative people and, believe it or not, that creative gift is not from man. And this is only 'proof of concept.' They would need to do this continually to produce power. That means a lot of deuterium and tritium pellets, and lasers, and a containment field and... relatd
Could fusion energy be God’s design for supplying humanity’s energy needs in a future era?
It sounds as if humans have been doing all the research, design and engineering on this without any supernatural assistance. Seversky

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