The Nuclear Breakthrough that will Change Energy Forever

This is the reality of nuclear energy.


Damien Jemison

Millions of dollars and thousands of hours made this possible.

Tyler Smith, Staff Writer

On August 8, 2021, scientists at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California achieved one of the most promising and miraculous breakthroughs of the twenty-first century, nuclear fusion ignition. Within the sixty year history of attempts, this is the first time they have ever been successful. To reiterate the absurdity of this feat, this is a phenomenon that is assumed to have never happened on the Earth before, naturally or artificially.

But what is nuclear fusion ignition? And why should you care about this discovery? Well, to put it simply, fusion ignition has the potential to cultivate a society run on solely renewable energy. As you may know, nuclear fusion is the process in which atomic nuclei fuse together, and this releases vast amounts of energy considering the size of the subjects. Fusion ignition is simply when the amount of energy used to start the reaction is less than the energy output. Because this is a process that yields energy, it’s something scientists have gravitated towards; if we could harness this as a power source, it would be very beneficial to humanity. Although this has been attempted for decades, it became more and more vital of an accomplishment as pressure grew to find an alternative to fossil fuels.

Energy is created through nuclear fusion–is this our energy future? (Vector Images)

Alternatives to fossil fuels should have two important qualities: renewability, and a general harmlessness to our planet. Renewability simply means that we won’t just run out one day, like we could with fossil fuels. And general harmlessness to our planet—which is a little more complex—means that by engaging in the energy source, we won’t be harming our planet in any way. This must pertain to the extraction and usage, and there is a plethora of things that could go wrong, things that we very well might not discover until decades later.

Not only is this a vital accomplishment for humanity, it is also one of the most impressive. Fusion ignition is a process only known to occur within stars, at millions of degrees Fahrenheit. So how is it even possible that humans were able to replicate this? Well, it didn’t take eighty years for no reason. The feat was achieved by a process known as inertial confinement fusion, which manipulates atoms using some of the most powerful lasers on the planet—lasers that would not be available until within the last decade or so.

The NOVA laser’s clean, organized look is the reality of nuclear power. (Public Domain)

Along with the advancements of the lasers themselves, the scientists also have been optimizing the incredibly complex and monumental chamber known as the hohlraum. The inner walls of which can reach hundreds of times hotter than the stars in which they mimic. Needless to say, the process is dangerous.

Many people, since disasters such as Chernobyl, Fukushima, and other nuclear disasters are reasonably cautious about advancing nuclear technology. What’s dangerous about nuclear fission, is that it can create what is known as “runaway reactions”. Runaway reactions are essentially a reaction that creates an accelerating domino effect of other reactions. This is the principle that causes the immense energy release of nuclear bombs, and it is not present within nuclear fusion reactions. The only dangers present in artificial nuclear fusion is within the immense heat of the hohlraum.

Climate change is considered one of the biggest threats to the wellbeing of our world by many, and for good reason. Thousands of species are being threatened by warmer temperatures, including us. Bigger droughts, more severe weather, and arid, infertile soil are becoming larger issues every season. One of the biggest culprits in the temperature increase is the burning of fossil fuels, and its corresponding discharge of greenhouse gasses. Of course, many governments have been making efforts to use more renewable energy sources, and less fossil fuels, but so far it’s not enough. Being able to harness the same energy source as the stars could be a paradigm shift in energy, climate change, and particle physics. This is a breakthrough that could fundamentally change the way the world is powered, and the side effects of powering it.