Pegging down fusion energy claims

editorial

editorial

By Imlisanen Jamir

Researchers in the United States this week announced that they had achieved “fusion ignition,” which an official US Department of Energy announcement described as “a major scientific breakthrough decades in the making that will pave the way for advancements in national defence and the future of clean power.”

The goal of fusion is to replicate the kinds of nuclear reactions that power the sun, and co-opt it to create a potentially unlimited source of clean-burning energy. Achieving this goal has been elusive—trials kicked off about 70 years ago, but the results of these runs revealed that more energy goes into the process than is produced by the fusion reaction itself.

This recent announcement is the first defensible claim of achieving net energy in a fusion reaction in the lab. There are some asterisks near that, which are pretty important, but it is an agreed-upon threshold that scientists have been looking for, for a couple of decades.

But what does the experiment at the National Ignition Facility (NIF) mean for science and for the dream of a new energy source that'll power our homes and cars without releasing any carbon dioxide?

In short, it's a big deal and fine to applaud, but it doesn't mean a green energy revolution is imminent.

The first one is that the definition of ignition in this context means inertial confinement fusion. Ignition means that the amount of energy that comes out of fusion is more than the energy that is shined on the target by the lasers.

So in this case, the lasers have contained about 2.1 megajoules of energy, and the fusing pellets produced about 3.15 megajoules, so more-energy-out-than-in ignition.

However, it takes a lot more energy to produce those laser beams than is contained in the laser beams themselves. In fact, it takes between 300 and 400 megajoules to produce a 2.1-megajoule laser beam. If you’re really looking from cradle to grave, its 400 megajoules in, and 3.15 megajoules out, which is really pretty far from an energy-producing juggernaut. That doesn’t even take into account the fact that the targets themselves take a lot of time and energy and money to produce.

If you’re not getting more energy out net than energy in, if you consume more energy in building the targets and getting the laser up than the excess that you get, it’s an energy consumer rather than an energy producer.

This project in actuality was really not designed as an energy project. This really is a weapons project.

Comments can be sent to imlisanenjamir@gmail.com