The Non-Scientist’s Guide To Why Nuclear Fusion Is A Big Deal

Senior Contributor
02.12.14 29 Comments

national ignition facility

If we said the name “Omar Hurricane” to you, you probably immediately think of a man with a giant laser. And, in fact, Omar Hurricane is a man with a giant laser, it’s just that instead of a Bond villain, he’s a researcher at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory who works with the National Ignition Facility, aka the NIF. He’s also the man who announced that nuclear fusion has been achieved, which means he’s the guy who got to announce what is possibly the most important scientific breakthrough. Yes, as in ever. Here’s what you need to know about nuclear fusion, and why it’s a big deal.

So I have to be a physicist to understand nuclear fusion?

Not to grasp the basic concept: You slam two things together really, really hard.

That’s it?

OK, so it’s slightly more involved than that: Essentially, the idea is to collide two atomic nuclei, in most cases hydrogen atoms, to create a new atomic nucleus, in most cases helium. Essentially you smack them together so hard they turn into something else. This process is so energetic that mass is not conserved but rather some of it is turned into energy, usually photons.

If this sounds familiar, look up. That giant ball of fire in the sky is basically a fusion reactor.

So, what’s the big deal?

In theory, if you can get a nuclear fusion reactor working properly, it would generate more power than you put into it, using the single most abundant element in the entire universe with zero dangerous waste products. It would also ‘feed’ on itself, constantly refueling. In other words, it would end our power problems forever. No more pollution. No more resource wars. Basically we could stop worrying about generating power and focus our resources elsewhere, like space travel.

OK, yeah, that is kind of a big deal. You mean to tell me we can now basically ignite a sun?

Not quite. To get to this point, we had to build a $3 billion laser that fires the length of three football fields at a target the size of pencil and used 500 trillion watts of power. We didn’t get more energy out of the reaction than we used to get the laser going.

But it worked!

Why wasn’t it working before?

Essentially because the hydrogen could get out. Here’s what Omar Hurricane said to NPR on the matter:

Hurricane says researchers now understand why their original strategy wasn’t working. In the journal Nature, he and his colleagues report that they’ve finally figured out how to squeeze the fuel with the lasers. By doing a lot of squeezing right at the start, they were able to keep the fuel from churning and squirting out. The lasers squeezed evenly and the hydrogen turned into helium.

Where do we go from here?

We’ve proved it’s possible, which is the first step. Next, we’ve got to figure out how to make it a self-sustaining reaction, and scale it up to the point where we can get the reactor going. It’s also a valuable insight for fusion researchers elsewhere, whether they’re using lasers or insanely powerful magnets to try and achieve a fusion reaction.

So we won’t be seeing this at home any time soon.

No, but it gives us a lot of hope for the future. And that’s always good.

(Image courtesy NNSANews on Flickr.)

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Dan Seitz is a grad student and freelance writer. He currently lives in Boston.

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