Fusion energy Breakthrough

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    • Recently, Scientists in the United States have achieved a net gain in energy for the first time from a nuclear fusion reaction which is considered as the most dependable source of energy in future.
      • The experiment was conducted at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California. 

    More about the news

    • Different Methods: 
      • Scientists use high-energy laser beams to achieve these temperatures which is also called inertial fusion
      • At the international collaborative project in southern France called ITER in which India is a partner used very strong magnetic fields for the same purpose which is the second method of producing this energy. 
        • The ITER project is expected to demonstrate the viability of a commercially scalable nuclear fusion reactor between 2035 and 2040.
      • Some countries are trying laser-based inertial fusion as well.
    • It is relatively easier to attain break-even energy levels through inertial fusion compared to magnetic fusion.

    What is fusion technology?

    • Meaning: It is a powerful way of harnessing the immense energy trapped in the nucleus of an atom.
    • Background: Attempts to master the fusion process have been going on at least since the 1950s, but it is incredibly difficult and is still at an experimental stage.
    • Difference in both the processes:

    • Fission Process: The nuclear energy currently in use across the world comes from the fission process in which the nucleus of a heavier element is split into those of lighter elements in a controlled manner. 
    • Fusion Process: Here, the nuclei of two lighter elements are made to fuse together to form the nucleus of a heavier atom.
      • The fusion of two nuclei of a heavier isotope of hydrogen, called tritium produces at least four times as much energy as the fission of a uranium atom which is the normal process of generating electricity in a nuclear reactor. 
      • Fusion is also a carbon-free source of energy and has negligible radiation risks.
    • A large amount of energy is released in both these processes, but the energy is more in fusion than fission.

    Major Challenge

    • Requirement of huge energy: Fusion reactions happen only at very high temperatures which is 10 times the temperature that exists at the core of the Sun and creating such an extreme environment in a laboratory requires huge amounts of energy.
    • Lower energy in these experiments: The energy released in such experimental fusion reactions have been lower than what is consumed to create the enabling high temperatures.
    • Future potential: Use of the fusion process for generating electricity at a commercial scale is still two to three decades away.
    • Shorter time for the experiment: The fusion reactions currently being run in labs last for barely a few seconds. Those based on laser beams run for even shorter times. It is difficult to sustain such extreme high temperatures for prolonged periods. 

    Way forward

    • Obtaining net energy gain is a very important step but we are still far away from reactor grade fusion reactions.
    • Several countries like: China, Japan, UK and South Korea, are working on this technology separately as well, apart from collaborating at ITER. 
    • Recently, UK-based JET laboratory: which uses magnetic fusion, has improved its own previous record for energy produced from a fusion reaction. 

    ITER (International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor)

    • It is an international nuclear fusion research and engineering megaproject aimed at creating energy by replicating on Earth the fusion processes of the Sun. 
    • When operational it would become the biggest machine anywhere in the world which would be more complex than the Large Hadron Collider at CERN or the LIGO project to detect gravitational waves.
    • Currently, the ITER reactor is in the machine assembly phase.
    • India joined the ITER project in 2005. The Institute for Plasma Research in Ahmedabad, a laboratory under the Department of Atomic Energy, is the lead institution from the Indian side participating in the project.

    Source: IE