February 17, 2014
The Power Of The Sun
“The power of the sun, in the palm of my hand.” – Dr. Octavius/Dr. Octopus, Spider-man 2.
One of the most iconic lines of the film, this line is said as Dr. Octavius, soon to be “Dr. Octopus,” attains nuclear fusion just before his experiment goes critical and forever alters him into the next super-villain the heroic Spider-man must stand against. And while the obsession of the character goes too far, the goal of Dr. Octavius was an admirable one: clean, renewable energy for everyone.
Soon, Doc Ock’s dream, the dream of a fictional character and one shared by many, may in fact become a reality.
At the National Ignition Facility at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, researchers have been working to create a sustainable fusion reaction, one that would use less energy to produce than it would give out. How did they do this? According to the Guardian, by using a bank of 192 lasers into a tiny gold capsule that holds a 2mm-wide spherical pellet of fuel, a mixture of the hydrogen isotopes tritium and deuterium. The fuel is coated on the inside of the pellet with as a layer as thin as a single human hair. When the laser array hits the pellet, it causes the gold container to emit x-rays, which then heat the pellet and cause it to implode, becoming hotter than the sun itself, which makes the tritium and deuterium partially fuse. Unfortunately, this experiment failed to generate more energy than the experiment used in total, which was the overall goal. The lasers released almost two megjoules of energy – the rough equivalent of two sticks of TNT – but were only able to read about 17 kilojoules of energy being released. Much of the energy they put into the experiment was expended before it was able to reach the fuel, which now gives future experiments a much clearer goal. In future tests, they will try to figure out how to conserve as much energy as possible, maximizing how much of it can reach the fuel and cause a reaction.
Fusion is one of the most currently reasonable sources for alternative clean energy, having zero carbon emissions during its operation and minimal waste, but currently the technical difficulties are proving a major hurdle. While currently operating nuclear reactors generate power by splitting atoms into lighter particles, fusion reactors combine light atomic nuclei to make them into heavier particles. At present, the results of the experiment need to generate nearly 100 times more power before it will be labeled as a complete success, but that has not deterred researchers from trying. This experiment was not a failure. Rather, it was more of a test run. A way of generating data so that they can collect what they know, make alterations to the experiment and try again. All steps on the road to cleaner energy.
One day, we may just have the power of the sun in the palm of our hands. Until we do, I will continue to hope for it.
Image Credit: Columbia Pictures / Marvel Entertainment