Explainer: The Science of Nuclear Fusion
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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.
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.
Map: Oil and Gas Spills in the U.S. Since 2010
Oil and gas spills can be messy, but where are they most likely to occur? This graphic looks at oil and gas spills in the U.S. since 2010.
Mapped: Oil and Gas Spills in the U.S. Since 2010
The recent energy crisis has highlighted the integral role that hydrocarbons play in fueling the modern world, but these fossil fuels still come with their fair share of downsides.
Aside from the obvious climate impact they bring, one other downside in particular is spills, which can lead to ecological and economic damage. These can happen due to pipeline leaks, train derailments , or other industrial disasters.
This graphic from Preyash Shah provides a visual overview of every oil and gas spill in the contiguous U.S. since 2010. Data is tracked by the U.S. government’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA).
U.S. Oil and Gas Spills (2010‒2022)
The majority of spills that have occurred come mostly from crude oil , followed by petroleum products and gas. Note that this data covers the quantity of spills and not damages or volume.
|Spills by Product Type||Portion of all U.S. Spills|
|Highly volatile liquids & flammable gas||16%|
|Liquefied petroleum gas / natural gas liquids||8%|
|Other highly volatile liquids||6%|
Crude oil, which makes up just over half of documented spills, is also one of the most costly. Contaminations can persist for years after a spill, and its impact on local mammals and waterfowl is particularly harsh.
This has been the case with the Deepwater Horizon spill (also known as the “BP oil spill”), which experts say is still causing harm in the Gulf of Mexico.
Other products with lots of spills include petroleum products such as diesel or gasoline, as well as liquefied natural gas or other volatile liquids. Interestingly, liquefied carbon dioxide can also be transported in pipelines , commonly used for carbon capture storage, but requires high pressure to maintain its state.
When looking at the location of spills, it’s clear that the South Central states have experienced the highest number of disasters. In contrast, the West Coast has had substantially less activity. However, this makes much more sense when looking at the dominant oil producing states , where Texas and surrounding neighbors reign supreme.
|Rank||State||Oil & Gas Spills (2010-2022)|
Of the 4,901 spills during this period, Texas accounts for 1,936 or roughly 40% of all oil and gas spills . This is followed by Oklahoma, which has had 407 spills and is one of the largest net exporters of oil and gas in the country.
What Causes Spills?
Oil and gas spills actually have a surprisingly long history, with one of the earliest dating back to 1889 , when a spill was reported on the coast between Los Angeles and San Diego.
Causes have consisted primarily of weather, natural disasters, equipment and technological malfunction, as well as human error.
However, they only became a widespread problem around the halfway mark of the 20th century, when petroleum extraction and production really began to take off. This era also saw the emergence of supertankers, which can transport half a million tons of oil but therefore make the risk of spills even costlier.
In fact, the biggest spill off U.S. waters after the Deepwater Horizon disaster is the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska, when a tanker crashed into a reef and 11 million gallons of oil spilled into the Pacific Ocean.
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