In developing futuristic power sources, sometimes you have to bet big, and that’s just what Sandia National Laboratories (SNL) is doing with its latest plans to develop fusion power using tritium, a radioactive form of hydrogen.
Sandia’s Z machine is the most powerful and efficient laboratory radiation source in the world. The company uses it to conduct safety and reliability tests on U.S. nukes by creating laboratory fusion reactions, essentially exploding nuclear reactions inside a large shock chamber. This prevents the need for full-blown underground tests.
Sandia traditionally works with deuterium, a hydrogen atom with an added neutron. While already creating formidable explosions, the scientists now want to work with tritium, a hydrogen atom with two extra neutrons. According to their calculations, using tritium could increase energy generation by 500 times and produce 80 times more neutrons.
Sandia has yet to conduct any live experiments using tritium in the Z Machine as they still have several safety hurdles to overcome. The isotope is highly radioactive and unstable, and until they figure out how the fuel will interact with all the components of the machine, tests will have the tritium confined in specially made housing. They plan to then slowly incorporate tritium into their mix, with the hope of reaching an even split of deuterium and tritium in the next three year.
Why all the focus on nuclear fusion? Because it promises cheap and clean energy. The small amount of fuel required to create a large amount of energy makes fusion a very economical power source. It’s also green — the only waste product is helium.
However, if the long amount of time it has already taken to develop the technology is any indication, harnessing the potential power of nuclear fusion hasn’t been easy. The biggest obstacle has been creating the right conditions for fusion to occur (essentially the conditions of the Sun’s core). There’s also the issue of research funding, since the machines and fuel needed for experimentation are not cheap.
This shouldn’t dissuade us from pursuing this valuable and viable source of power, though. The worsening conditions of our climate and the increasing energy demands of our digital world make developing this and other energy solutions more important than ever before.