Scientific Breakthroughs

In Quest to Develop Fusion Power, Sandia Labs Raises the Stakes

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In Quest to Develop Fusion Power, Sandia Labs Raises the Stakes
PHOTOGRAPH: Sandia National Labs | Inside the Sandia Z Machine

Solutions to the world’s most pressing problems, like generating power free of carbon emissions, will continue to be driven by technology. Scientists at Sandia National Laboratories have intensified efforts to develop fusion power, raising the stakes by introducing tritium into experiments using its Z machine.

Generating electricity free of carbon emissions is ideal, but harnessing it in a way that is truly safe and cost-effective remains the big challenge. The efforts of Sandia (operated by a wholly owned subsidiary of Lockheed Martin Corporation for the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security) inch humankind closer to realizing that ideal.

THE Z MACHINE

Sandia has been using the Z Machine for decades to create laboratory fusion reactions to verify computer models and ensure that US nuclear warheads stay safe and reliable without having  to resort to underground test explosions. The Z machine looks like giant shock machine consisting of a ring of giant condensers feeding electricity into a central vacuum chamber through extra thick cables.

Inside the chamber, the energy is released in a single shot reportedly 1,000 times greater than that of a lightning bolt and 20,000 times faster. This is focused on a target made of hundreds of hairlike tungsten wires, which instantly flash into a plasma that implodes to generate two million joules of X-Ray energy and heats the chamber to 1.8 million degrees Celsius.

Fusion’s great potential as new energy source depends on scientists’ capabilities to harness its power in laboratory events. The Z machine is central to Sandia’s efforts.

Sandia recently turned to tritium, but handling tritium has its hazards. Tritium is unstable and highly radioactive (with a half life of 12 years), requiring very careful handling  because it is still a form of hydrogen that may easily slip into areas where it should not.

THE SCENARIO

Leading institutions’ work on fusion energy is crucial. In fact, power generation is among the top five areas singled out at the World Economic Forum, where technologies and funding have been poured into, to fight global warming.

To date, scientists continue to explore ways to produce a self-sustaining fusion reaction that will generate more energy than it will consume. With all the fusion fuel at hand, the planet can be powered for hundreds of millions of years.

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