Even with all the developments taking place in the areas of alternative energy such as solar and wind power, nuclear fusion still remains the holy grail of clean electricity generation.
However, after decades of worldwide research costing billions of dollars, the goal of achieving “net-gain,” where more energy is produced than is required to trigger the fusion chain reaction, still remains elusive. Now researchers at Sandia Labs are claiming a breakthrough that could see break-even fusion reactions in as little as two to three years.
Research into producing energy from seawater using controlled nuclear fusion is taking place on a number of different fronts. To bring two light atomic nuclei together with enough force that they fuse, resulting in a heavier nucleus and a large amount of energy, some approaches are looking at the use of powerful lasers, while others are focusing on superconducting magnets called tokamaks, in what is known as Magnetized Target Fusion (MTF).
Yet another approach involves Z-pinch – a type of plasma confinement system that uses an electrical current in the plasma (essentially a cloud of ions) to generate a magnetic field that compresses it. The pinch method, which Sandia calls a dark-horse contender in the fusion race, contracts plasma so suddenly and tightly that hydrogen isotopes from seawater, placed in a capsule within the plasma, should fuse.
Until now, instabilities known as magneto-Rayleigh-Taylor (MRT) instabilities, which arise wherever electromagnetic forces are used to pinch plasma, have proven an impediment to the process. This instability rapidly crimps the cylindrically contracting plasma until it resembles a string of sausages or some other equally useless shapes, thereby causing a loss of the perfect symmetry of forces necessary to fuse the material.
So although fast Z-pinches, which take place in less than 100 nanoseconds, have already proven successful in creating fusion, (as evidenced by the production of some neutrons), MRT instability has been a major reason that not enough neutrons have been produced to provide a source of reliable electrical power.