For the blink of an eye, nuclear fusion appears possible. Nuclear reactors today are fission reactors, where decaying nuclear material heats water to power generators. Fusion reactors, in theory, create a sustained reaction, like at the heart of actual stars. Humans have attempted to create fusion reactors since the 1950s. This decade, Lockheed notably announced a secretive reactor in development in 2013. The typical way to get to the point of fusion is by superheating a ball of gas and then sustaining that heat. Earlier this week, Tri Alpha Energy, located in southern California, announced that they’ve created a superheated gas ball that lasts longer than expected, a crucial step on the road to fusion. Like Lockheed, instead of using a giant donut-shaped reactor, Tri Alpha is working with a cylindrical device.
In a hubristic imitation of the sun, fusion reactors combine hydrogen atoms at high temperatures. Tri Alpha heated their sample (using hydrogen and boron) up to 10 million degrees Celsius, or 18 million degrees Fahrenheit (the temperature at which it becomes plasma). Then a fusion reactor held that plasma in place, which is usually done with electromagnetic fields. This means that most fusion reactors have high energy demands, though they promise gigantic yields. The reactor made by Tri Alpha used 10 megawatts to heat the gases to just 10 million degrees. But to get to the three billion degrees that is required to provoke a fusion reaction, they’ll need a lot more power. The design does seem capable of handling it–the field Tri Alpha created lasted for five milliseconds before their machine ran out of energy to maintain it.
Assuming all of this works when scaled up, Tri Alpha Energy has the potential to unlock an astoundingly powerful source of energy. There’s a lot that has to happen first to make the fusion dream real though, and if Tri Alpha fails, they’d be hardly the first to promise an amazing energy source and only deliver hot air.
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