Fusion ‘101’ – Why It Matters For Climate Change And Weather Balloons?


Some things in science are just cool. Others are cool and potentially life-altering. This week, the U.S. Department of Energy announced that one of its labs, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL), achieved something called fusion ignition. Let’s break down what that means and why it matters for climate change.

The Department of Energy press release said, “On December 5, a team at LLNL’s National Ignition Facility (NIF) conducted the first controlled fusion experiment in history to reach this milestone, also known as scientific energy breakeven, meaning it produced more energy from fusion than the laser energy used to drive it.” Fusion is the same process by which the Sun produces energy. For decades, scientists have sought to reproduce the mechanism in laboratories, but it has been elusive. Dr. Arati Prabhakar, the President’s Chief Advisor for Science and Technology and Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy noted, “We have had a theoretical understanding of fusion for over a century, but the journey from knowing to doing can be long and arduous. Today’s milestone shows what we can do with perseverance.”

So why does this matter for climate change? Fusion happens when two lighter nuclei, (in this case hydrogen) are combined to produce a single heavier nucleus (like helium). During that process, a significant amount of clean energy is released. The Department of Energy press release went on to say, “This historic, first-of-its kind achievement will provide unprecedented capability to support NNSA’s Stockpile Stewardship Program and will provide invaluable insights into the prospects of clean fusion energy, which would be a game-changer for efforts to achieve President Biden’s goal of a net-zero carbon economy.”

This announcement is a game-changer for science, technology, and engineering communities. However, it is important to calibrate expectations. We are still likely years to decades from mimicking the power of the Sun on scales large enough provide current energy needs. This experiment produced enough net gained energy to boil a couple of gallons of water, but that’s not the exciting point. The point is that more energy was produced as output than delivered as input. Keep in mind the first airplane was not a Boeing Dreamliner and the first mobile phones required a small workout to lift.

However, it is very alluring and hopeful to envision an energy economy that is free of emissions, air pollution or radioactive waste. The fuel supply for fusion is hydrogen. Hydrogen is very abundant. As you read this, you might be asking how fusion differs from fission in nuclear power plants. The International Atomic Energy Agency website says, “Fission splits a heavy element (with a high atomic mass number) into fragments; while fusion joins two light elements (with a low atomic mass number), forming a heavier element.” Both processes release energy, but fusion does not produce radioactive waste. It produces inert helium (which can be used in weather balloons by the way). Fusion also does not produce chain reactions that are characteristics of nuclear accidents and is not really viable for weapons production either.

Perhaps now you see why scientists are giddy.



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