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Scientists Say Their Giant Laser Has Produced Nuclear Fusion : NPR


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Researchers at a laboratory in California say they've had a breakthrough in producing fusion power with a giant laser. The success comes after years of struggling to get the laser to work and is another step in the decades-long quest for fusion energy.

Omar Hurricane, a researcher at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, says that for the first time, they've produced significant amounts of fusion by zapping a target with their laser. "We've gotten more energy out of the fusion fuel than we put into the fusion fuel," he says.

Strictly speaking, while more energy came from fusion than went into the hydrogen fuel, only about 1 percent of the laser's energy ever reached the fuel. Useful levels of fusion are still a long way off. "They didn't get more fusion power out than they put in with the laser," says Steve Cowley, the head of a huge fusion experiment in the U.K. called the Joint European Torus, or JET.

The laser is known as the National Ignition Facility, or NIF. Constructed at a cost of more than $3 billion, it consists of 192 beams that take up the length of three football fields. For a brief moment, the beams can focus 500 trillion watts of power — more power than is being used in that same time across the entire United States — onto a target about the width of a No. 2 pencil.

The goal is fusion: a process where hydrogen atoms are squeezed together to make helium atoms. When that happens, a lot of energy comes out. It could mean the answer to the world's energy problems, but fusion is really, really hard to do. Hurricane says that each time they try, it feels like they're taking a test.

There's no danger that they'll accidentally blow up the world while taking this test, is there?

Unless fission that is an "autonomous" chain reaction.

With fusion there's no risk no, it needs to be helped to work, so if you stop helping it, it stops by itself. 

There is the main problem, to make it produce energy, we need to find a way to make it last longer.

The promise of fusion energy (=star energy) is pretty incredible, very sadly, the technical gap we need to cross to master it is still very far, and even researchers currently working on that are pretty pessimistic about it coming soon.

Some of the promises of controlled fusion power plants:

- energy efficiency higher than fission (the current nuclear power plants)

- no CO2 emission (like current fission power plants, btw)

- no risk of chain reaction or any kind of explosion, because nuclear physics, that's how it is.

- uses radio-elements naturally present in ocean water (~infinite source)

- produce mainly normal water at the end

- radioactive wastes would be much smaller and with a "dangerous" life of a few decades, to be compared with 50 000 years for the fission radioactive wastes

Thank you for the clarifications. Sounds promising but needs a lot more research.

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