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The Transformative Potential of Fusion Breakthrough

A scientist from Tulane University said the US Department of Energy’s announcement of a significant fusion energy breakthrough on Tuesday has the potential to change the world, but he cautioned that the technology is still many years—and experiments—away.

Fred Wietfeldt is chair of the Tulane Department of Physics and Engineering Physics. Image Credit: Tulane University

Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm and Undersecretary for Nuclear Security Jill Hruby stated that experiments using the inertial confinement fusion process had produced net energy gains, marking a significant development in the long-running search for fossil fuel substitutes.

The achievement, according to officials, paves the way for improvements in the future of clean energy and national defense.

Nuclear fusion is the reaction that converts hydrogen into helium, which releases a lot of energy. This is the process that powers the sun (and most stars), and also thermonuclear weapons (H-bombs). For the past 70 years, scientists have been working toward devising a practical, controlled fusion reactor on Earth.

Fred Wietfeldt, Ph.D., Chair, Department of Physics and Engineering Physics, School of Science and Engineering, Tulane University

He added, “The hydrogen isotopes needed can be extracted from seawater. Helium, the waste product, is clean and inert. So, fusion has the potential to end mankind’s reliance on fossil fuels, halt global warming and produce sufficient clean energy to satisfy our needs for a million years at least.

He further stated, “I am very bullish on fusion power. I think it will be practical and on the power grid within the next 20 to 30 years.

According to Wietfeldt, there are two methods that researchers have been working on for years in the hopes that one of them will be successful. One of those methods is the inertial confinement method. Magnetic confinement is the other strategy.

Inertial confinement is when a brief, very intense laser pulse heats up a fuel pellet and the reaction in that pellet is over before the hot hydrogen can escape,” Wietfeldt added.

He claimed that the National Ignition Facility at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California first showed a net gain in energy from inertial confinement fusion, which means that fusion produced more physical energy than the laser energy required to drive it.

Wietfeldt concluded, “This is a great breakthrough. But it is important to note that this is still a long way from a practical fusion reactor, where the amount of electrical energy coming out is more than that required to power the reactor. Many more technical breakthroughs are needed to improve the efficiency of the method to reach that point. So, I think it is fair to say this is a giant step but on a very long road, one that we’re still in the middle of.


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