Laser Inertial Fusion Energy: How to Make Star Power
Sep 7, 2023. News
What is laser inertial fusion energy?
Current nuclear power functions based on nuclear fission. We’re splitting atoms and, in the process, releasing their energy. The downsides are that this produces toxic (radioactive waste) that we later have trouble disposing of. However, what if we could fuse nuclei of two atoms and release energy this way? This is the concept of nuclear fusion, which always happens in stars. It’s not impossible!
Hydrogen isotopes must be heated to a degree where they turn into a hot and dense plasma to undergo a fusion reaction. Some physicists believe this can be achieved with the help of lasers (laser inertial fusion energy). While it’s still a developing technology with numerous technical challenges, there are some indications that this could become the future power source we’re all waiting for.
With all this in mind, we’ll discuss the potential behind this concept and address some challenges. Here are some benefits of making star power here on Earth, and here’s what’s stopping us so far.
What is fusion energy, and why is it so important?
Fusion, the process that powers the Sun, may just be our planet’s solution to the question of clean, safe, and limitless energy. Now, there are two main ways to tackle this issue. The first is MFE (Magnetic Fusion Energy), and the second is Inertial Fusion Energy (IFE).
At first, NASEM reported (in 2013) that the latter method would only be realistic when the ignition was achieved. This was done in 2021 with a yield of more than 1.3 megajoules from the fusion reaction. In December 2022, a 3.15 megajoules threshold was reached.
In other words, according to the wording of their own report, “The appropriate time for the establishment of a national, coordinated, broad-based inertial fusion energy program within DOE” has come.
Fusion energy is the concept of merging nuclei of two hydrogen atoms to make an even heavier isotope that is less massive. This process produces energy, according to Einstein’s famous equation E=mc^2, that can be harnessed by a power plant and put to good use.
The reason why this process is so important is because the fusion reaction itself is because it produces less waste. One of the suggestions as an alternative energy source is a deuterium-tritium (D-T) fusion reaction. The idea is that D-T plasma gets contained using a magnetic field and that an inertial confinement fusion (which uses high-powered lasers) compresses a small amount of D-T for a short period of time. The inertia of the imploded fuel should provide further containment.
In other words, by mastering the art of inertial fusion energy, we could learn how to make star power in a completely safe and clean way.
This way, we would get clean and, even more importantly, an inexhaustible energy source here on Earth.
Can lasers create fusion?
No, lasers cannot create fusion on their own. They are, however, expected to play a pivotal part in the fusion process.
So, where do lasers come in? Imagine a lump of cold clay. You wouldn’t be able to shape it, would you? To make it workable, you must warm it up and moisturize it. A similar thing happens to these isotopes. With the latest technological laser fusion breakthrough, you could use high-powered lasers to make these particles usable.
Benefits of laser inertial fusion energy
Thanks to the virtual Basic Research Needs workshop, the U.S. is in a position to lead the world’s IFE research.
Why is this important, and what it could lead to?
There are too many benefits of this technology to list them all. Here are some of the biggest ones:
- Laser inertial fusion produces no greenhouse gas emissions.
- Fuel supply is abundant. We have the technology to draw hydrogen isotopes from seawater.
- Lasers used in this process use a relatively small amount of energy (compared to other heat sources).
- The maintenance is low, and there’s almost no waste.
At the end of the day, the benefits of laser inertial fusion energy are great at the current level of laser technology and fusion energy sciences. However, as these two fields progress, the efficiency is expected to grow exponentially.
Challenges in laser inertial fusion energy
Not all is sunshine and roses in the field of IFE. There are many concerns, some of which are more realistic than others. For instance:
- Lasers required to produce such energy output are far from cheap. Fusion reactors are incredibly expensive, as well. While this technology could revolutionize the future of energy, the initial investments are far from cheap.
- Even the highest-powered lasers are still not there technologically. It would have to be far higher than that to initiate and sustain fusion reactions. Fortunately, lasers are getting stronger, which means it’s only a matter of time before they’ll catch up. So, how powerful is the laser for fusion? Near the end of 2022, The NIF experiment managed to surpass the ignition threshold by producing 3.15 megajoules of energy with such a laser. This was a huge step in the right direction.
- Tritium, one of the components of laser inertial fusion energy, is not easy to come by. It has to be produced or obtained from other reactions, typically in a nuclear reactor, which are few and far between. Now, once the application of this technology becomes more present, this situation may be solved on its own.
- The public may be concerned with the safety and reliability of this technology. Still, this concern has more to do with the radiation compromising the walls' materials than anything laser-related.
All of this needs to be addressed in due time, and each problem has a pretty obvious solution. Once the technology is off the ground, there will be enough resources and public interest to handle them individually.
What would a fusion energy power plant look like?
The easiest way to explain this entire process and where individual parts fall would be to try and explain what the fusion energy plant would look like.
Generally speaking, there would be five essential elements of the plant.
- First, you would have the initial confinement fusion reactor. This is the heart of the plant. Imagine a furnace on a steamship with hydrogen isotopes instead of coal. This would be a high-tech reactor developed to withstand incredible pressure and temperature.
- Second, you would need a fuel storage facility. Since the fuel in question is volatile, this must be a specially designed facility. Why nuclear fuel requires special care doesn’t really require further explanation.
- An energy conversion system would transform this energy into electricity. Think of turbines and generators like in any other power plant.
- The cooling system would have to be a work of art. The heat produced here would be out of this world (we’re literally discussing how to make a star in controlled circumstances). So, we would need a cooling system that can handle this.
- Finally, the safety practices and monitoring systems must be impeccable. We’re talking about a system in which there’s no room for error.
This would take incredible planning and unprecedented precision during the construction process. Fortunately, numerous multi-billion dollars private investments are starting to tackle this issue.
Ultimately, laser inertial fusion energy may just be the green sustainable future we all seek. Technology is almost there, and public opinion is rapidly catching up. All it takes is more improvement and, of course, stronger lasers.
So, join us at LaserNetUS to learn more about laser science and research.
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