Fusion Breakthrough Could Be Game-Changer for Clean Energy
Scientists have made a breakthrough in nuclear fusion energy that could have far-reaching implications for the future of clean power. For the first time, U.S. government scientists have been able to produce a fusion reaction that results in a net energy gain.
Since the 1950s, scientists have been trying to harness the nuclear fusion reaction — the same process that powers the sun and other stars — but until now had not been able to generate more energy from the reaction than it consumes. Being able to do so is the first step to demonstrating that nuclear fusion has the potential to provide humans with a limitless green alternative to other sources of power, including and especially fossil fuels.
The U.S. Department of Energy plans to officially announce the advance at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory on Tuesday, the Financial Times reported.
“If this fusion energy breakthrough is true, it could be a game changer for the world,” California Congressman Ted Lieu tweeted.
Nuclear fusion differs from nuclear fission — the process of splitting one atomic nucleus — that is currently used to produce nuclear power. In nuclear fusion, two light atomic nuclei are forced together to form a single, heavier nucleus, releasing vast amounts of energy.
While it may still take decades to become a commercially viable source of power, the eventual benefits of nuclear fusion — no greenhouse gas emissions, less resources needed than wind and solar and zero radioactive waste — would change the landscape of energy production and potentially provide low-cost energy to poverty-stricken countries, reported The Washington Post.
“Scientists have struggled to show that fusion can release more energy than is put in since the 1950s, and the researchers at Lawrence Livermore seem to have finally and absolutely smashed this decades-old goal,” said Deputy Director for Research and Economics at the UK’s Office for National Statistics Data Science Campus Dr. Arthur Turrell, as the Financial Times reported.
The experiment was conducted at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory’s National Ignition Facility in California. The process — “inertial confinement fusion” — took the largest laser in the world and used it to zap a small hydrogen plasma pellet. Most nuclear fusion research uses a technique called “magnetic confinement fusion,” where magnets hold hydrogen fuel in place while it is heated until the atomic nuclei fuse together.
About 2.5 megajoules of energy were produced by the inertial confinement fusion reaction, which was around 120 percent of the energy coming from the lasers, according to those with knowledge of the outcome of the experiment.
“To most of us, this was only a matter of time,” said a senior fusion scientist familiar with the National Ignition Facility’s work, as reported by The Washington Post.
Chief Executive of Oxford’s First Light Fusion Nicholas Hawker said the possible leap forward “couldn’t be more profound for fusion power,” the Financial Times reported.