The National Ignition Facility (NIF) in the United States continues to make progress in the development of its experimental nuclear fusion reactor, achieving a new record by generating twice as much energy as it consumes. This breakthrough represents a significant step towards the realization of the goal of obtaining unlimited, cost-effective energy.
In December 2022, the team at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, where NIF is located, reached a milestone by achieving net nuclear fusion for the first time, a breakthrough crucial to demonstrating the commercial feasibility of nuclear fusion. The experimental reactor produced 2.5 megajoules (MJ) of energy, which is 150% of the 2.1 MJ used to induce fusion in a small cylinder filled with hydrogen.
Months later, overcoming several failed attempts, the reactor managed to break its own record by reaching an energy production of 3.5 MJ. Recent trials have shown even more promising results, achieving up to 1.9 times the energy previously obtained, according to a paper published in the journal Physical Review Letters.
The NIF nuclear fusion reactor
NIF researchers have described this achievement as the first time a fusion energy gain has been unequivocally achieved in the laboratory, marking more than five decades of research and demonstrating that controlled nuclear fusion in the laboratory is possible based on fundamental physics principles.
NIF uses a technique known as inertial confinement to replicate the natural reaction that occurs in stars. Using 192 lasers, it bombards a small cylinder containing two hydrogen isotopes, causing it to implode and generating the conditions necessary for the isotopes to fuse and release energy.
Unlike other experimental reactors employing magnetic confinement, the NIF has demonstrated the feasibility of its method, although the power generated is compared only to the power of the lasers and not to the total power required to operate the entire system.
Despite the advances, researchers warn that there is still work to be done before commercial nuclear fusion is achieved. The NIF, which is not designed as a commercial demonstrator but rather to support the U.S. nuclear weapons program, has been shown to the inertial confinement fusion technology works and that there is still room for improvement.
Richard Town, one of the researchers, suggests that with upgrades, such as more powerful lasers, even greater energy gains could be achieved, approximately 10 times more than what has been achieved so far, bringing us closer to the goal of a controlled and sustainable fusion energy source.
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