Researchers Spark first Sustainable Fusion Reaction

Researchers claim to have sparked the first sustainable fusion reaction with lasers at the National Ignition Facility (NIF).

To explain, fusion fuel heated itself to higher temperatures after being zapped with 192 X-ray lasers, Reuters reports. Thus, researchers achieved a phenomenon they call burning fusion for the first time.

The hope is that researchers can create sustainable fusion reactions in plasma that generate enormous amounts of heat and energy. However, the energy produced was tiny the equivalent of nine nine-volt batteries. Axios claims the experiment generated 170 kilojoules of energy.

Igniting the Fusion Fire

“This is a good analogy for a burning plasma, where the fusion is now starting to become self-sustaining,” experimental physicist Alex Zylstra said. Zylstra compared the experiment to a fireplace or a campfire.

“If you want to make a campfire, you want to get the fire to hot enough that the wood can keep itself burning,” says Zylstra who works at the NIF. Hence if you want to make fusion you need to get plasma hot enough to be self-sustaining.

A team at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory’s NIF aimed 192 laser beams at a two millimeter (mm) capsule of deuterium and tritium plasma. At high temperatures the two hydrogen isotopes fused creating an “alpha particle” and releasing energy.

“Now, for the first time, fusion reactions occurring in the fuel provided most of the heating – so fusion is starting to dominate over the heating we did,” Zylstra claims. “Fusion requires that we get the fuel incredibly hot in order for it to burn – like a regular fire, but for fusion we need about a hundred million degrees (Fahrenheit).”

“For decades we’ve been able to cause fusion reactions to occur in experiments by putting a lot of heating into the fuel, but this isn’t good enough to produce net energy from fusion,” added Zylstra.

Zylstra thinks the NIF is close to a sustainable fusion reaction, PBS reports. “We’re very close to that next step,” Zylstra told PBS.

Can the World’s Largest Laser Create Fusion?

The NIF is the world’s largest laser. On 8 August 2021, scientists claimed they had generated 70% of the energy needed to ignite a fusion reaction at the NIF.

The NIF is not a fusion reactor but it shows fusion is possible. Researchers believe the NIF could create the self-heating plasma that will make sustainable fusion, Axios reports.

The hope is that the plasma will heat itself to temperatures hot enough to create fusion. Hopefully, private researchers and researchers in other countries will be able to replicate the NIF’s experiments.