Harnessing the energy of the sun and stars to meet the Earth’s energy needs has been a scientific and engineering challenge for decades. A self-sustaining fusion burn has been achieved for brief periods under experimental conditions, but the amount of energy that went into creating it was greater than the amount of energy it generated.
What’s needed next, for fusion energy to supply a continuous stream of electricity, is energy gain. The National Ignition Facility intends to be the first fusion facility to demonstrate ignition and gain. NIF’s fusion targets are potentially capable of releasing 10 to 100 times more energy than the amount of laser energy required to initiate the fusion reaction.
The nuclear power plants in use around the world today use fission, or the splitting of heavy atoms such as uranium, to release energy for electricity. A fusion power plant, on the other hand, will generate energy by fusing atoms of deuterium and tritium, two isotopes of hydrogen—the lightest element. Deuterium is extracted from abundant seawater, and tritium is produced by the transmutation of lithium, a common element in the Earth’s crust and oceans.
When the hydrogen nuclei fuse under the intense temperatures and pressures in the NIF target capsule, a helium nucleus is formed and a small amount of mass lost in the reaction is converted to a large amount of energy according to Einstein’s famous formula E=mc2.
A fusion power plant would produce no greenhouse gas or other noxious emissions, operate continuously to meet demand, and would not require geological disposal of radioactive waste. A fusion power plant would also present no danger of a meltdown.
Because nuclear fusion offers the potential for virtually unlimited safe and environmentally benign energy, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) has made fusion a key element in the nation’s long-term energy plans, with investments into magnetic fusion energy and with the ability to leverage the investments from the National Nuclear Security Administration’s defense programs that support NIF.