How do Z pinches contribute to the development of clean-energy technologies?
The importance of Z in solving the world’s energy challenges is directly connected to its potential in the realm of fusion. Inertial confinement fusion for peaceful production of electricity has always been of interest to Sandia’s Pulsed Power Sciences. But today, in light of growing concern about the health of our planet and considering our escalating energy needs, the development of fusion technology is especially promising for several reasons.
First, the fuel needed for fusion is virtually limitless – deuterium, an isotope of hydrogen, is abundant in seawater; tritium is bred in the fusion power plant process. In addition to being abundant, seawater as fusion fuel is incredibly energy-rich. Half a bathtub full of seawater in a fusion reaction could produce as much energy as 40 train cars of coal. The fusion reaction is a good alternative to combustion because fusion doesn’t involve burning fuel, which means it doesn’t contribute to air pollution. Finally, the fusion energy production process creates virtually no radioactive waste, which makes fusion a good alternative also to fission, the method currently used in nuclear power plants, which does produce long-lived radioactive waste.
To put it simply, the ability to get useable energy out of a fusion reaction is the Holy Grail in fusion physics. In order to produce and use fusion energy, a process involving very high temperatures and densities must be contained and controlled. Beyond the challenges faced by researchers trying to achieve inertial confinement fusion, scientists working on fusion energy have to figure out a way to produce internal confinement fusion events at a high enough rate and with enough efficiency to be useful as a power source. At the moment, the Z machine fires approximately once a day. A fusion energy machine would have to fire around 10 times per second, capture the energy from the shots and transmit it to a power-producing system.