New developments in nuclear fusion give scientists a better understanding of the field

Zachary Keener

A breakthrough has been made in the field of nuclear fusion that brings the world’s understanding of the science one step closer to seeing it as a reliable source of energy.

Researchers at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California published research Feb. 12 on novel findings in the field of nuclear fusion. For the first time in the history of inertial confinement fusion, also known as ICF, more energy has been produced by the implosion of a fuel pellet than was deposited through the use of lasers in the target. This excess in energy could make nuclear fusion a more viable option of alternative energy.  

“It takes a lot of energy to do this, but for the first time with ICF they were able to have more energy from fusion produced than the energy that was deposited into the fuel,” computer science senior Evan Ott said. 

Though the experiment has resulted in excess energy present in the fuel cell, Ott said the experiment has not yet been able to produce more energy that is required to use the lasers driving the fusion. 

Bjorn Hegelich, an associate physics professor, said the original intent of the project at Livermore has not been realized. 

“We built a big laser at Livermore, as a nation, it’s called the National Ignition Facility, and that was supposed to ignite a burning plasma,” said Hegelich, whose research focuses on high energy density plasma. “This has not happened so far.”

Hegelich said the University has contributed to the field of nuclear fusion and will continue to participate in building on the knowledge that has been learned.

“As a student, you can’t work on all [aspects of nuclear fusion], you will always work only on a sub-part of it,” Hegelich said. “But we are actually tied into this, we are working on some parts of this and students who come can work on some aspects of it.”

Physics graduate student Eddie McCary, who works with a vacuum chamber used in freezing hydrogen gases, said his work contributes to a greater understanding of nuclear fusion.

“If you can get a pure proton plasma, which is a type of matter where the electrons have all been pulled away from the protons, it has a lot of application to the fusion,” said McCary.

According to Hegelich, the discovery, although not providing an easy fix for the project’s limitations, is still significant in the progression of nuclear fusion. 

“It’s not a breakthrough in the engineering sense that all the problems are solved and now we just need to go in and put it all together, and then it will work,” Hegelich said. “But it really is an important scientific milestone. We really have learned things that we didn’t know before. We can now build on that. … In that sense, I think it is a breakthrough.”