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Reports: US scientists expected to announce long-awaited nuclear fusion breakthrough


The US Department of Energy is expected to announce on Tuesday that scientists have for the first time successfully produced a nuclear fusion reaction that results in a net energy gain, according to the Financial Times and The Washington Post.

The result of the experiment would be a massive step in a decades-long quest to unlock an infinite source of clean energy that could help end dependence on fossil fuels. For decades, scientists have been trying to recreate nuclear fusion – and replicate the fusion that powers the sun.

Researchers at the National Ignition Facility at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California made the discovery, according to The Post.

U.S. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm will make an announcement Tuesday about a “major scientific breakthrough,” the department announced Sunday.

The department declined to comment to CNN on Sunday about whether it had received the merger breakthrough, which was first reported by the Financial Times.

Nuclear fusion occurs when two or more atoms fuse into one larger one, a process that generates an enormous amount of energy as heat.

Scientists all over the world have been moving towards the breakthrough; in February, British scientists announced that they had more than doubled the previous record for generating and sustaining nuclear fusion.

In a huge doughnut-shaped machine called a tokamak equipped with giant magnets, scientists working near Oxford were able to generate a record amount of renewable energy. Still, it only lasted 5 seconds.

The heat maintained by the process of fusing the atoms is the key to producing energy.

As CNN reported earlier this year, the fusion process creates helium and neutrons — which are lighter in mass than the parts they were originally made of.

The missing mass is then converted into an enormous amount of energy. The neutrons, which are able to escape the plasma, then hit a “blanket” that lines the walls of the tokamak, and their kinetic energy is transferred as heat. This heat can then be used to heat water, create steam and drive turbines to generate power.

All of this requires the machine that generates the reaction to undergo serious heat. The plasma must reach at least 150 million degrees Celsius, 10 times hotter than the Sun’s core.

The big challenge in harnessing fusion energy is to sustain it long enough for it to power electrical grids and heating systems across the globe.

A British fusion researcher told CNN that the result of the US breakthrough is promising, but also shows that more work needs to be done to enable fusion to generate electricity on a commercial scale.

“They have worked on the design and composition of the target and the shape of the energy pulse to get much better results,” Tony Roulstone, from the University of Cambridge’s department of engineering, told CNN.

“The opposing argument is that this result is miles away from actual energy gain required for the production of electricity. Therefore, we can say that (it) is a success for science, but far from providing useful energy.”

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