The image above is an incredibly powerful donut-shaped magnet designed to contain a sustained nuclear fusion reaction.
We have been able to fuse together hydrogen atoms to make helium atoms since the U.S. tested the first hydrogen nuclear bomb.
Harnessing the massive amount of energy generated by fusion to produce sustainable, emission-free electricity presents a much more difficult challenge.
Scientists recently achieved a breakthrough in nuclear fusion technology: "ignition" or the creation of a self-sustaining nuclear fusion reaction.
According to Newsweek:
Researchers at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory's (LLNL's) National Ignition Facility (NIF) recorded the first case of ignition on August 8, 2021, the results of which have now been published in three peer-reviewed papers.
Fusion reactors must heat hydrogen atoms to cause them to "fuse" into helium atoms, unleashing enormous energy as a byproduct. The "fuel" comes from ocean water. The only "waste" is the helium gas, which can be used in industrial applications. No fossil fuels are used, and no carbon dioxide is produced.
To control the reaction, super-powerful electro-magnets create a magnetic "bottle" around the fusing and exploding atoms. Without this magnet field, every fusion reactor would become a fusion bomb. Plus, the magnetic "bottle" keeps the heated atoms from cooling off.
"Ignition" refers to the fusion reaction generating enough of its own heat to continue fusion without any extra heating by external machines or sources. The scientists at LLNL achieved ignition for a few nanoseconds, producing a miniscule amount of energy.
That doesn't sound impressive, but it's a "proof of concept" that will support future research and advancements in fusion technology.
As you might imagine, it takes an awful lot of electricity to power the magnets to contain and maintain a self-sustaining fusion reaction.
Achieving "break-even" in the energy used to heat and maintain the magnetic "bottle" and the energy produced by the fusion reactor will be the next major breakthrough in fusion technology. That is the goal of the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER).
The ITER has a magnet powerful enough to life an aircraft carrier. Roads in France had to be widened and strengthened to transport some of ITER's component parts. The reactor will cost $20 billion by the time it's finished in 2025.
Fusion technology is arguably the most difficult thing humans have ever tried to achieve. It has eluded us for decades, but with unprecedented scientific collaboration and investment, we seem to be on the verge of achieving the impossible.