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I’ve been heads down working on a feature about the California Public Utility Commission's upcoming decision on rooftop solar (tomorrow!) and in the meantime humanity went off and… figured out nuclear fusion?
Yes, this week “fusion” is the word in the energy world. Scientists at the National Ignition Facility (NIF) at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in Lawrence, CA successfully started a nuclear fusion reaction that created more energy than they put in. This milestone, known as “ignition,” has been a goal in the fusion world for decades, and the theoretical implications are astounding. The practical ones, not so much.
Fusion, the process by which lightweight atoms combine into heavier ones, releases an incredible amount of energy. It’s the process that makes the sun shine and has been exploited to produce the most powerful nuclear bombs ever detonated. In other words, we’ve known that fusion works, from a physics standpoint for a long time. What we haven’t been able to do, is recreate that process in a laboratory in a controlled manner that might actually help us create usable energy. Until now.
By focusing 2.05 megajoules (MJ) of laser energy onto a BB-sized piece of fusion fuel inside of a diamond capsule inside of a gold box, scientists at NIF created a controlled fusion explosion that produced 3.15 MJ of energy. For context, 3.15 MJ is just a tad north of one kilowatt hour, meaning the explosion could’ve powered a pretty nice countertop blender for an hour.
While I could undoubtedly make half a dozen top-tier smoothies with an hour of blender runtime, that’s still not exactly the city-scale clean energy solution that fusion has often been touted as. So what gives?
Well for one, the NIF was never designed to actually generate energy for the grid. It was always going to be a science experiment—a testing ground for what’s possible within the physical conditions of our universe. And the test results show that you can now do fusion in the lab. From a physics perspective, that really is a monumental milestone worth celebrating. The white whale exists, now we just have to catch it…or ride it…or something. I never read "Moby Dick."
So why not just increase the scale of the NIF experiment to power the grid? Because this isn’t a matter of just getting a bigger laser, a bigger piece of fuel, a bigger diamond capsule, and a bigger gold box. Likewise, repeating the feat over and over very quickly doesn’t seem like it will work either since it takes forever to set up and the lasers need time to recharge. As such, if humanity is going to power its future with fusion, a different design is almost certainly a must. To that end, scientists have been working on tokamak reactors, which use magnetic fields to trap plasma that heats up the fusion fuel similar to the laser at NIF. These designs, including the leading tokamak design in Europe, have been in development for decades and have become infamous for over-promising and under-delivering. But the same could be said about the NIF laser setup, until now.
This is all to say that fusion energy, in any usable, scaleable form, is likely still multiple decades away at the earliest.If, however, we figure it out, the ignition that occurred on December 5th 2022 in Lawrence should be remembered as the first major step towards that goal.– David Shultz
Robots Have Made Their Way To California Nursing Homes
Bear Robotics' Servi robots received a warm reception received a warm reception from guests and customers at nursing homes in San Francisco and La Jolla. The pilot marks the first time the robots were deployed outside California restaurants, including Downtown L.A.'s Chiguacle Sabor Ancestral de Mexico.
Amazon’s New Virtual Studio Aims to Cut Costs
It was only a matter of time before Amazon figured out how to marry web services and virtual production at its new Culver City studio. The result: Amazon Studios 20 member "virtual production team," an attempt to cut down on expensive on-location filming.
Listen Up: Crush Ventures On Music Tech’s ‘Next Big Thing’
On this episode of the LA Venture podcast, Crush Ventures Head Andrew Kahn discusses the technology driving sales and engagement, music's future of social platforms and the similar ways in which artists and entrepreneurs innovate.
What We’re Reading...
- A new report finds LAPD hasn't fully been tracking how it uses facial recognition technology.
- L.A. edtech startup Numerade launches a new social learning "study groups" feature.
- All electric ride-hailing company Kaptyn expands into L.A.
- L.A.-based startup Repairsmith is acquired by Autonation for $190 million.
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