The United States’ Department of Energy announced what it called a “major scientific breakthrough” involving a successful attempt to create nuclear fusion that some believe could be “transformative” for humanity. If this all sounds familiar, it’s because nuclear fusion of this type was a plot point of 2004’s Spider-Man 2, but here’s to hoping things go better in real life.
In an announcement streamed live (watch it below), Department of Energy secretary Jennifer Granholm confirmed that researchers from Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California created what is called “net energy gain” for the first time recently. This is the term for when the fusion reactor produced more energy than was used to ignite it, according to the Associated Press. This is a major breakthrough in efforts to creating clean power and other scientific advancements, though no one’s home will run on energy produced by fusion anytime soon.
The appeal of nuclear fusion as an energy source is that it can create carbon-free energy on a nearly limitless basis, helping move away from fossil fuel sources that can be bad for the environment and costly. It also doesn’t create radioactive waste like traditional nuclear reactions do.
The breakthrough announced this week is just a start, University of Rochester professor Riccardo Betti told The Associated Press. What has been achieved is similar to the earliest days of oil refining, long before refined oil was ever used to run a car.
“You still don’t have the engine and you still don’t have the tires,” Betti said. “You can’t say that you have a car.”
As for how fusion actually works, here’s how the AP summarized it. “Fusion works by pressing hydrogen atoms into each other with such force that they combine into helium, releasing enormous amounts of energy and heat,” the publication said.
Celebrity scientist Neil deGrasse Tyson said on TV when people think of nuclear energy, they often tend to think about nuclear fission, which was the energy source behind the two bombs that the United States dropped on Japan in World War II.
For nuclear fusion, however, the problem continues to be the ability to safely control it, Tyson said. Fusion without control creates a bomb, whereas controlled fusion can be throttled and directed where it is needed–in this case, to create energy that is not harmful.
In Spider-Man 2, Alfred Molina’s Doc Ock created a fusion reactor that had the lofty goal of creating safe and secure renewable energy. The reactor quickly became unstable and, well, things went badly.
If scientists and engineers can find a way to safely and efficiently create energy with nuclear fusion, it could be “transformative to civilization,” Tyson said. It could be akin to the transition from horses to automobiles, which came about after engineers made advancements to internal combustion and engines, Tyson said.
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