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Published:June 19th, 2013 15:48 EST
Is Limitless Green Energy in Our Near Future?

Is Limitless Green Energy in Our Near Future?

By Darden Adams

When we think of nuclear power these days most of us probably picture radioactive hazard signs, nuclear meltdown, or the problem of radioactive waste disposal. Over the past fifty years many minor nuclear accidents and the disasters at Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, and Fukushima, have damaged public opinion, especially from environmental groups concerned with the longterm effects of hazardous waste.

But what if there were an alternative with no dangerous waste and even greater efficiency than traditional nuclear plants. Enter nuclear fusion.

For decades, a working nuclear fusion power plant has been the holy grail of physicists and nuclear engineers. In a nuclear fusion reaction, two atoms are forced together into one. This results in the conversion of a portion of each atom`s mass into an enormous amount of energy in the form of photons (light). The best part is that, unlike nuclear fission reactions, the fuel used in fusion could be one of the most common elements in the universe: hydrogen. Once two hydrogen atoms are forced together, the only by product other than pure energy is helium, an inert substance we can use to fill party balloons.

Of course, there is a catch. Nuclear fusion requires so much energy to achieve that for energy production it seemed impractical until recently. Scientists at the National Ignition Facility (NIF), in Livermore, California, believe that they have the answer. Construction began on the massive NIF facility in 1997 with the mission of building a set of 192 high power lasers precision aimed at a tiny fuel pellet inside an aluminum and concrete shielded target chamber. The lasers, which can fire over a million joules of energy, are theoretically capable of producing the conditions necessary for nuclear fusion in the fuel pellet. This is called Inertial Confinement Fusion and works by heating the outer layer of the fuel pellet so quickly that the contents, in this case deuterium and tritium, are forced to fuse. In March 2009 NIF scientists began testing the system, but encountered a number of technical issues which delayed attempts to ignite a fusion reaction until 2012. Tests during the summer of 2012 did not succeed in ignition of a reaction either, but scientists remain confident that with more testing and perfection the system will succeed.

According to Laser Internal Fusion Energy (LIFE), the NIF will be able to serve as the blueprint for a true nuclear fusion power plant once fusion ignition is achieved.