Explainer: The Science of Nuclear Fusion
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Explainer: The Science of Nuclear Fusion

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Explainer: The Science of Nuclear Fusion

The Science of Nuclear Fusion

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U.S. scientists at the National Ignition Facility, part of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL), announced a major breakthrough in nuclear fusion this week.

For the first time ever, scientists successfully produced more energy from a nuclear fusion experiment than the laser energy used to power it.

In the above infographic, we describe nuclear fusion and illustrate how this discovery may pave the future for a new form of clean and sustainable energy.

What is Nuclear Fusion?

Nuclear fusion powers the Sun and the stars, where immense forces compress and heat hydrogen plasma to about 100 million degrees Celsius. At this temperature, the lighter particles fuse into helium, releasing enormous amounts of energy.

Nuclear fusion is a fairly clean energy source as it does not produce harmful atmospheric emissions and only produces a small amount of short-lived radioactive waste.

Scientists have been trying to replicate it on Earth for almost 70 years, using isotopes of hydrogen—deuterium and tritium—to power fusion plants.

Since deuterium is found in seawater and tritium is attained through irradiating lithium (a common element used in batteries), the accessibility of these isotopes means that fusion could become a major source of energy in the future.

The amount of deuterium present in one liter of water, for example, could produce as much fusion energy as the combustion of 300 liters of oil.

Fusion fuel can replace these fuels

However, the real challenge is ensuring fusion power plants generate more energy than they consume.

The Challenge of Fusion Ignition

Fusion ignition is the term for a fusion reaction that becomes self-sustaining, in which the reaction creates more energy than it uses up. Up until now, scientists were only able to break even.

The National Ignition Facility used a special setup called inertial confinement fusion that involves bombarding a tiny pellet of hydrogen plasma with lasers to achieve fusion ignition.

LLNL’s experiment surpassed the fusion threshold by delivering 2.05 megajoules (MJ) of energy to the target, resulting in 3.15 MJ of fusion energy output, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.

Can Nuclear Fusion Energy Be Commercialized Soon?

In recent years, fusion technology has been attracting the attention of governments as well as private companies such as Chevron and Google. Bloomberg Intelligence estimates that the fusion market will eventually be worth $40 trillion.

Besides energy generation, fusion is expected to be used in other markets like space propulsion, marine propulsion, and medical and industrial heat.

However, according to the director of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Kim Budil, it will take “probably decades” before nuclear fusion energy is commercialized.

During the breakthrough announcement, she noted that it was necessary to produce “many many fusion ignition events per minute” as well as have a “robust system of drivers” before fusion can be commercialized successfully.

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Visualizing U.S. Consumption of Fuel and Materials per Capita

Wealthy countries consume large amounts of natural resources per capita, and the U.S. is no exception. See how much is used per person.

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Visualizing U.S. Consumption of Fuel and Materials per Capita

This was originally posted on Elements. Sign up to the free mailing list to get beautiful visualizations on natural resource megatrends in your email every week.

Wealthy countries consume massive amounts of natural resources per capita, and the United States is no exception.

According to data from the National Mining Association, each American needs more than 39,000 pounds (17,700 kg) of minerals and fossil fuels annually to maintain their standard of living.

Materials We Need to Build

Every building around us and every sidewalk we walk on is made of sand, steel, and cement.

As a result, these materials lead consumption per capita in the United States. On average, each person in America drives the demand of over 10,000 lbs of stone and around 7,000 lbs of sand and gravel per year.

Material/Fossil FuelPounds Per Person
Stone10,643
Natural Gas9,456
Sand, Gravel7,088
Petroleum Products 6,527
Coal 3,290
Cement724
Other Nonmetals569
Salt359
Iron Ore239
Phosphate Rock 166
Sulfur66
Potash49
Soda Ash36
Bauxite (Aluminum)24
Other Metals 21
Copper13
Lead11
Zinc6
Manganese4
Total 39,291

The construction industry is a major contributor to the U.S. economy.

Crushed stone, sand, gravel, and other construction aggregates represent half of the industrial minerals produced in the country, resulting in $29 billion in revenue per year.

Also on the list are crucial hard metals such as copper, aluminum, iron ore, and of course many rarer metals used in smaller quantities each year. These rarer metals can make a big economic difference even when their uses are more concentrated and isolated—for example, palladium (primarily used in catalytic converters) costs $54 million per tonne.

Fuels Powering our Lives

Despite ongoing efforts to fight climate change and reduce carbon emissions, each person in the U.S. uses over 19,000 lbs of fossil fuels per year.

U.S. primary energy consumption by energy source, 2021

Gasoline is the most consumed petroleum product in the United States.

In 2021, finished motor gasoline consumption averaged about 369 million gallons per day, equal to about 44% of total U.S. petroleum use. Distillate fuel oil (20%), hydrocarbon gas liquids (17%), and jet fuel (7%) were the next most important uses.

Reliance on Other Countries

Over the past three decades, the United States has become reliant on foreign sources to meet domestic demand for minerals and fossil fuels. Today, the country is 100% import-reliant for 17 mineral commodities and at least 50% for 30 others.

In order to reduce the dependency on other countries, namely China, the Biden administration has been working to diversify supply chains in critical minerals. This includes strengthening alliances with other countries such as Australia, India, and Japan.

However, questions still remain about how soon these policies can make an impact, and the degree to which they can ultimately help localize and diversify supply chains.

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