In December of last year, scientists achieved a significant breakthrough in the field of nuclear energy. Researchers at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory facility (LLNL) successfully produced more energy than consumed during the nuclear fusion process. Recently, scientists at the same facility have reported an even higher yield in energy, marking nuclear’s growing potential as a virtually limitless and environmentally-friendly energy solution.
Reflecting on this accomplishment back in December, LLNL Director Dr. Kim Budil said, “The pursuit of fusion ignition in the laboratory is one of the most significant scientific challenges ever tackled by humanity, and achieving it is a triumph of science, engineering, and most of all, people.”
The process of nuclear fusion can best be understood with the explanation given by The Department of Energy Office of Science, “two light nuclei merge to form a single heavier nucleus. The process releases energy because the total mass of the resulting single nucleus is less than the mass of the two original nuclei. The leftover mass becomes energy.” Einstein’s famous equation, E=mc2, illustrates this reaction. This equation explains that mass and energy are the inverse of each other — meaning they can be converted into each other. (Still not getting it? That’s ok! Check out this page for a more in-depth explanation of nuclear energy.)
Unlike the burning of fossil fuels, nuclear fusion does not produce greenhouse gasses or contribute to climate change in any way. The process only requires the elements hydrogen and lithium, which are both abundant resources on Earth, guaranteeing nuclear fusion’s long-term reliability as an energy source.
This process is different from nuclear fission, which is the process that is currently used in nuclear power plants. Both nuclear processes release energy through their reactions but differ in that fission splits heavy elements. The split results in radioactive nuclear waste in the form of unstable nuclei. These nuclei have long half-lives (rate of decay), meaning they can remain hazardous for millions of years.
Nuclear fusion can be a game-changer in energy sustainability, but it does not come without its downsides. While this progress is revolutionary, realistically it may be decades before it can be used on a wide scale. Furthermore, the lasers used to power the reaction are limited. These lasers need almost an entire day to cool before being able to produce another reaction, limiting their practicality for continuous energy production that would be needed for wide-scale use.
As the journey of research and development in this field continues, nuclear fusion is a promising sustainable energy source. Regardless of the challenges it faces, this breakthrough is a considerable step forward to a clear and more sustainable future.
How can you help?
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Extra steps you can take
Joining Kids Fight Climate Change: If you want to make climate change news and information more accessible, you should consider joining us! Check out this link: Join the Team | Kids Fight Climate Change: Youth Climate Education. There are more opportunities than just writing, including designing, editing, speaking, and publishing.
Volunteering at advocacy groups: VolunteerMatch is a great resource to find volunteer opportunities, virtual and in-person. Check out this link: VolunteerMatch
If neither of those options applies to you, there are still ways to raise awareness! Simply by sharing articles such as this one, you are doing your part to spread important climate information. That is activism.
Achenbach, Joel, and Evan Halper. “U.S. Announces Milestone on Fusion Energy, Sparking Hopes for Clean Power.” Washington Post, December 17, 2022. https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/2022/12/13/fusion-energy-biden-climate/. “Basic Fusion Physics.” International Atomic Energy Association, n.d. https://www.iaea.org/topics/energy/fusion/background. Brasch, Ben, Kyle Rempfer, and Shannon Osaka. “U.S. Lab Says It Repeated Fusion Energy Feat — with Higher Yield.” Washington Post, August 7, 2023. https://www.washingtonpost.com/climate-solutions/2023/08/06/nuclear-fusion-net-energy-gain-higher-yield/. “DOE Explains...Nuclear Fusion Reactions.” U.S. Department of Energy, n.d. https://www.energy.gov/science/doe-explainsnuclear-fusion-reactions. “Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory Achieves Fusion Ignition.” Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, December 13, 2022. https://www.llnl.gov/news/lawrence-livermore-national-laboratory-achieves-fusion-ignition.