The Student Newspaper of Poly Prep Country Day School

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The Student Newspaper of Poly Prep Country Day School

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The Student Newspaper of Poly Prep Country Day School

The Polygon

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STEM In the World: Is Nuclear Fusion Finally Viable?

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VIA CREATIVE COMMONS

Just over a year ago, on December 5th, 2022, scientists achieved their first controlled nuclear fusion experiment that produced net positive energy production, meaning it produced more energy than what it was fueled with. According to the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), “the achievement of fusion ignition at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) – a major scientific breakthrough decades in the making that will pave the way for advancements in national defense and the future of clean power.” 

There are multiple ways that nuclear fusion ignitions can be created, but so far the LLNL’s method of lasers is the only way that has produced a net positive reaction. The lab, about three football fields in size, holds 192 of the world’s highest-energy lasers. These lasers are amplified by a series of mirrors all converging at a center point of a peppercorn-sized space filled with hydrogen atoms that are compressed together into helium, and heated to temperatures of approximately 100 million degrees Celsius.

The first successful ignition, lasting for about 20 billionths of a second, or about 5,000,000 times faster than the blink of an eye, is just the first step in harnessing this form of energy production. One of the biggest concerns was if such a feat could be repeated, and on July 30th, 2023, scientists at the National Ignition Facility (NIF) did just that. 

Still, much has to be done till nuclear fusion can be applied on a commercial scale. While the ignition itself was net positive in energy gain, the lasers used are not nearly efficient enough to produce total net energy gain for the entire process. So, even though the lasers delivered 2.05 megajoules of energy and created 3.15 megajoules of fusion energy, the process of powering the lasers before efficiency loss took approximately 205 megajoules. 

There is also currently no way to turn the outputted energy into a form that is usable for electricity, though there are theorized ideas for this process. One example could be converting the energy to heat, using a steam turbine to run a generator. 

Additionally, the scientists at LLNL can only test a fusion reaction about once a day. In between tests, the lasers need to cool, and the peppercorn-sized fusion fuel needs to be replaced. 

According to the Washington Post, current fusion experts argue that the main setback right now is funding, and believe that if they received proper funding from governments and private donors, a prototype power plant could be a reality by the 2030s. 

What makes nuclear fusion so special, according to Ben Farrar, computer science teacher at Poly Prep and rocketry enthusiast, is that “It must be the future of energy production. It’s the only one that makes sense. We have all these versions of energy production, all these methods of energy production that have waste, or they only work when the sun is shining or they mess up the fish. Nuclear fusion is the only one that gives us clean power, and a lot of it.” 

“If we can just harness the power of the sun, then we can have infinite energy… it solves every problem that we have if only we can get it to work,” said Farrar.

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About the Contributor
TJ Iannelli, Managing Editor
TJ Iannelli is one of the Managing Editors for the Polygon. A member of the Polygon for three years now, TJ has been a staff writer and Opinions Editor in the past. His favorite articles to write vary, but mainly focus on major school changes or STEM. Outside of the Polygon, TJ is a two sport athlete and a member of Green Key. Some of his hobbies include surfing, snowboarding, and F1.

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