If you love science fiction, you may have heard of nuclear fusion. In the real world, fusion is what powers the sun. In some science fiction tales, humans in the distant future have learned to use fusion for an ultimate source of energy, an abundant source of energy that does not pollute the environment or release dangerous levels of Radioactive waste. .
Yesterday, Department of Energy scientists announced a breakthrough that could help bring this science fiction vision to life. After decades of testing, scientists have for the first time achieved a nuclear fusion reaction that produced more energy than it consumed. Behind this technical description lies a simple but important breakthrough: humans can tap into the process that powers the stars to produce energy on Earth.
“It’s a real science moment,” my colleague Kenneth Chang, who covers physics and other sciences, told me. “It allows you to look ahead and hope for what is possible.”
Why is this result so important? As a clean source of energy, nuclear fusion could help replace polluting fossil fuels and overcome climate change. And if the remaining challenges – of which there are many – are resolved, nuclear fusion could produce more energy than today’s technologies are capable of.
Serious hurdles remain ahead of that potential future, experts warn. Can scientists reliably replicate what they once did? Can we do it more efficiently and faster? Can it be scaled? All of these issues are serious enough that, if left unaddressed, yesterday’s announcement could ultimately amount to little.
Anything related to nuclear science can quickly become technical and complicated. In today’s newsletter, I want to walk you through some basics so you can understand why the announcement could be a great find.
imitate the sun
Fusion is what powers the sun and other stars. The sun’s massive gravitational pull is constantly compressing hydrogen atoms and fusing them into helium, releasing bursts of energy. This energy is transmitted through the solar system in the form of light and heat, creating in rare circumstances the conditions for life.
Back on Earth, scientists hope to replicate a tiny fraction of this process to power our other technologies and infrastructure, without emitting the global warming emissions that coal, oil and gas do or the radioactive waste that current nuclear power plants produce. .
Most nuclear fusion experiments have used doughnut-shaped reactors and magnetic fields to trap hydrogen, fuse it together, and release energy. These experiments have not yet produced more energy than they have consumed – the goal they must meet to be considered a true energy source.
What the Department of Energy lab did was different. It fired 192 lasers at a tiny hydrogen pellet. This heated the pellet, causing it to implode, fuse into helium, and release a blast of energy.
The lab had been conducting this experiment for years, tweaking how and where the lasers are fired. On December 5, the changes paid off: the resulting nuclear fusion produced more energy – about 50% more – than the incoming energy from the lasers. (Although firing lasers uses more energy – a different problem to solve.)
“They can say unequivocally that they made a nuclear fusion reaction that produces more energy than it takes to start the reaction,” Kenneth said. “Nuclear fusion research has been around for 50 years, and no one has been able to tell that before.”
The goal now is to refine this approach, hoping to make it commercially viable and eventually supplant other, dirtier energy sources.
As exciting as the results were for the scientists, they recognized that there were potentially decades of work left before this breakthrough would lead to widespread commercial use, if it ever did.
For one thing, scientists have performed this type of fusion reaction exactly once. Commercial use would require facilities to reproduce this result reliably and consistently, firing lasers up to 10 times per second.
Some of the fuel used for this particular process might also be hard to find. Other possible fuels exist – potentially from moon mining (yes, that’s as crazy as that sounds) – but these would require a whole different set of breakthroughs to obtain and use.
And there are more practical questions about cost and scale. The Department of Energy’s laser complex occupies the equivalent of three football fields, Kenneth noted – “too big, too expensive, too inefficient for a commercial power plant.”
Yet it is typical for scientific breakthroughs to begin in unrealistic laboratory environments before being refined for public use. At the very least, this discovery shows that nuclear fusion can be a source of energy. Now work is beginning to try to turn this into usable technology.
THE LAST NEWS
A delicious 2022
It’s been a year of restaurant openings in New York, reaching “near breakneck, Lucy-in-the-chocolate-factory speed over the past few weeks,” writes Times critic Pete Wells. And although the economy created challenges for restaurants this year, including a labor shortage that led to earlier closing times and shorter weeks, many new establishments in the city were well-equipped. to deal with it.
Among the new restaurants, Pete has selected 10 that stand out. They include a cafe in Midtown that makes you feel like you’re in Milan, the best Thai food in town, and a superb omakase sushi meal.
Affordable catering: If you’re looking for a meal that’s more in the $10 range, here are some places in New York where you can get good food at reasonable prices.
In the USA : These are the dishes that Times food critics still think about.
PLAY, WATCH, EAT
What to cook
Yesterday’s Spelling Bee pangrams were lockable, cookable and lockable. Here is the riddle of the day.
Here’s today’s Mini Crossword, and a hint: $100, in slang (five letters).
And here is today’s Wordle.
Thank you for spending part of your morning with The Times. Until tomorrow. – German
PS The League of Nations, precursor to the UN, expelled the Soviet Union 83 years ago today for invading Finland.
This is today’s front page.
“The Daily” talks about abortion.
Matthew Cullen, Lauren Hard, Lauren Jackson, Claire Moses, Ian Prasad Philbrick, Tom Wright-Piersanti and Ashley Wu contributed to The Morning. You can join the team at email@example.com.
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