UW researcher: Breakthrough in nuclear fusion a milestone for US

Dec 13, 2022, 3:26 PM
nuclear fusion...
View of the research reactor "Wendelstein 7-X" at the Max Planck Institute for Plasma Physics. The institute with the fusion reactor "Wendelstein 7-X" relies on nuclear fusion as a way to generate energy. (Photo by Stefan Sauer/picture alliance via Getty Images)
(Photo by Stefan Sauer/picture alliance via Getty Images)

American scientists have made a breakthrough in the research of nuclear fusion energy.

Humanity has utilized nuclear fission in power plants for decades, but the act of fusing two atoms into one — with a net gain in energy — has eluded physicists until now. What American scientists have managed to do is join two atoms in a process that generated more energy than was used to create it.

Chris Hansen, Ph.D., is a senior research scientist at the University of Washington and focuses on nuclear fusion energy.

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He said with fusion, scientists are trying to re-create the process that powers the sun and stars.

“This is a huge step. I mean, this is maybe not quite a Wright Brothers moment, but in that direction of demonstrating that we can do a really crucial part of this,” Hansen said.

Scientists have been working for decades on this. Hansen says it dates back to the project which designed the first nuclear bomb, but that shouldn’t worry people as the recent breakthrough is unlikely to usher in any new kind of superweapon.

“So, now comes the part of, can you do it reliably? Can you do it economically? And that is not a trivial problem,” Hansen said.

Unlike nuclear power plants that use fission, fusion has advantages.

“With fusion reactions, you have absolutely no risk of meltdown,” Hansen said. “You have no problem, you don’t generate anything like the long-lived wastes that we have to deal with from current nuclear reactors.”

And while the fuel source Uranium needed for fission is limited, hydrogen and other “light” elements used for fusion are plentiful.

Even so, Hansen notes there are challenges ahead.

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“The reason it’s difficult is you need to recreate conditions like those in the core of the Sun,” Hansen said.

Nevertheless, he says the advancement could spur a wave of private investment — which could mean good news for Washington state.

Supporters said fusion could help drastically reduce the world’s reliance on fossil fuels and the greenhouse gasses they emit.

Follow Sam Campbell on Twitter or email him here

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UW researcher: Breakthrough in nuclear fusion a milestone for US