Taming the 'nuclear bonfire' | Canaries7

The target chamber where the 192 lasers are fired at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. / LLNL

Science | Opinion

In the middle of the energy crisis, the news from the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory ignites the flame of illusion

Felix Fernandez Alonso

FELIX FERNANDEZ ALONSO Ikerbasque research professor. Materials Physics Center - Materials Physics Center, Donostia

The US Department of Energy has announced important results from the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California. The possibility of generating more energy than that directly used in a nuclear fusion reaction has been demonstrated. The scientific community had been pursuing this long-awaited goal for more than half a century. There are many and very good reasons to celebrate it. Scientifically speaking, it has been a long and arduous path full of challenges and difficulties, from the strictly conceptual to the technical and financial ones.

Power generation through fusion reactions shares many similarities with what is required to burn a simple log of wood. In principle, a match would suffice to do so. But we all know very well that it also takes a lot of experience and a good dose of dexterity. Hence, most of us opt for the use of splinters (or similar tricks), in order to increase our chances of success. If all goes well and is achieved, the results are gratifying: the amount of energy stored in the trunk is much higher than that initially contained in the match; Also, the already started fire can be perpetuated without much effort by adding more logs to the bonfire. The main challenge lies in overcoming the first step, when we light the match and bring it closer to the fireplace.

Something similar, but in circumstances very different from our homes, occurs at the Lawrence Livermore. The 'match' consists of a high-power laser installation the size of a football stadium, whose development over decades has already been a clear triumph of science and technology. The 'trunk' or fuel is a tiny sphere where the enormous amount of energy to be extracted resides. The third element – ​​key, as a splinter would be – is a sophisticated capsule that surrounds the fuel and allows laser light to heat and compress it to initiate nuclear fusion.

Lawrence Livermore's latest results certainly point in the right direction. But we still have a long way to go to translate this remarkable scientific breakthrough into an efficient way to generate clean and virtually unlimited energy. On the one hand, the maximum amount of energy extracted is far below what is necessary to make it profitable. Also, the construction of a large-scale nuclear fusion reactor is going to require a lot of ingenuity and new knowledge to develop novel materials capable of withstanding the extreme conditions created around this 'nuclear bonfire'. Undoubtedly, further investigation is necessary.