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Nuclear fusion could potentially provide abundant, safe energy without the significant production of greenhouse gas emissions or nuclear waste. But it has remained frustratingly elusive as a practical technology for decades. An important milestone toward that goal has now been passed: a fusion reaction that derives most of its heat from its nuclear reactions themselves rather than the energy pumped into the fuel from outside.

A team at the National Ignition Facility (NIF) at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) in California has reported this so-called burning plasma condition using an approach called inertial-confinement fusion, where the ferociously high temperatures and pressures needed to initiate fusion in a fuel of hydrogen isotopes are produced by intense pulses of laser light. The researchers’ findings appear in Nature, with companion papers published in Nature Physics and on the preprint repository “The data clearly show that they have reached that condition,” says fusion physicist George Tynan of the University of California, San Diego, who was not involved in the work.

“The NIF results are a really big deal,” says fusion physicist Peter Norreys of the University of Oxford, who was not part of the studies. “They show that the pursuit of an inertial fusion reactor is a realistic possibility for the future and not built upon difficult and insurmountable physics.” Plasma physicist Kate Lancaster of the University of York in England, who was also not involved in the research, agrees. “This is an incredible achievement, which is a culmination of a decade of careful, incremental research,” she says.

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