Nuclear fusion just passed a major milestone : On Tuesday, the head of the Department of Energy and other federal scientific leaders announced that a fusion reaction they ran at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California produced more energy than was required to start the reaction. This marked the first time that humanity has achieved this milestone.
Fusion is the process by which the sun produces energy, but creating energy through fusion here on Earth has been a challenge for scientists for many years.
On Tuesday, the head of the Department of Energy and other federal scientific leaders announced that a fusion reaction run at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California produced more energy than was required to initiate the reaction. This is the first time in history that this has been achieved.
Fusion is the way that the sun produces energy, but scientists have been unable to recreate a useful fusion reaction here on Earth for decades. Achieving net positive energy would allow fusion to transition from a laboratory science to a practical energy source.
Fusion is particularly attractive given the increasing urgency of climate change because it produces no carbon emissions, nor does it produce the long-lasting nuclear waste associated with nuclear fission, which is the type of nuclear energy currently in use.
On December 5, 2022, a team from the Department of Energy’s Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory made history by achieving fusion ignition. This is also known as scientific energy breakeven, as the experiment produced more energy from fusion than the laser energy used to drive it. The announcement was made on the laboratory’s Twitter account on Tuesday.
This is important. Previous experiments had achieved records, but had not yet yielded more energy output than was put in,” said Andrew Holland, the CEO of the Fusion Industry Association, in an interview with CNBC. “For the first time, scientists have confirmed a fusion energy experiment that generated more power than was required to initiate it, verifying the scientific potential of fusion energy. This breakthrough will pave the way for fusion to become a safe and sustainable energy source in the nearfuture.
Rumors were circulating in the days before the press conference as the interest in fusion energy as a possible viable source of energy has grown significantly in recent times due to worries about climate change and energy security.
More than 90 nuclear power reactors are currently operating in the United States. These nuclear reactors generate energy through nuclear fission, a process in which a neutron collides with a larger atom, causing it to split into two smaller atoms and releasing large amounts of energy. Nuclear fission does not emit any carbon dioxide, making it a clean energy source, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.
In 2021, the United States obtained approximately 19 percent of its utility-scale electricity generation from nuclear power plants, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, and the energy produced from nuclear fission reactors accounted for half of the clean power generated in the United States, according to the Department of Energy.
However, those reactors produce long-lasting nuclear radioactive waste when in operation, and most countries, including the United States, currently have that nuclear waste stored in dry cask barrels on nuclear reactor sites all over the country. Attempts to construct a permanent, underground geological storage for nuclear fission waste have been unsuccessful in the United States thus far.
Fusion occurs when two atoms collide to form a heavier atom, releasing immense amounts of energy without producing carbon dioxide emissions or long-lasting nuclear waste. However, it has been incredibly difficult to maintain a fusion reaction on Earth and scientists have been striving to achieve this for many years. In particular, a large amount of energy is needed to initiate a fusion reaction, and until this experiment, no one had been able to achieve more energy output than the energy needed to power the reaction.
Turrell said, “For decades, whenever anyone has asked for funding to develop fusion power, the answer has always been ‘first, demonstrate that it works in theory.’ For the first time ever, the researchers at Lawrence Livermore have achieved this.”
The success could also encourage more private investment in fusion, which is already a popular area — so far, investors have put almost $5 billion into private fusion energy startups, according to the Fusion Industry Association, and more than half of that has been since the second quarter of 2021.
Everyone in the laser fusion (or inertial confinement fusion) field has been concentrating on producing more energy in a single experiment than what was used in the experiment, as this is the key to demonstrating the concept and stimulating more investment and attention, according to Turrel.
Indeed, the private fusion industry is seeing this as a win, with companies like Tri Alpha Energy, Commonwealth Fusion Systems and Tokamak Energy all hoping to turn experimental results into a viable source of clean energy. Holland stated that this milestone brings them closer to the day when fusion will provide the world with clean, safe, and abundant energy.