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Fusion energy, the “holy grail” of clean power, is one step closer to reality


The Energy Department plans to announce Tuesday that for the first time, scientists have succeeded in creating a fusion reaction that produces a net energy gain — a milestone in the decades-long, multibillion-dollar quest to develop technology that provides unlimited, inexpensive supplies. , pure power.

The purpose of fusion research is to replicate The nuclear reaction that produces energy in the sun. It is the “holy grail” of carbon-free energy that scientists have been chasing since the 1950s. It’s still at least a decade — perhaps decades — away from commercial use, but the latest development is likely to be celebrated by the Biden administration as confirmation of a major investment by the government over the years.

Finally, massive amounts of public and private funding have been channeled into the worldwide fusion race to produce fusion machines that can bring electricity to the grid with no carbon footprint, no radioactive waste, and fewer resources than needed to harness solar energy. wind power. In addition to climate benefits, promoters say it could help bring cheap electricity to poor parts of the world.

“For most of us, it was just a matter of time,” said a senior fusion scientist familiar with the work of the National Ignition Facility at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, where it was discovered.

Nuclear fusion power is inches closer to reality

The development was first reported by the Financial Times on Sunday. This was confirmed by two acquaintances by research, who spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid ahead of the official announcement. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm is due to make an announcement on Tuesday at a media event heralded as the launch of a “great scientific breakthrough.”

The department and lab declined to comment. A lab official said researchers there were still finalizing their analysis and would not release any official findings before Tuesday.

The science of nuclear fusion is based on splitting two atoms at incredibly high speeds and converting the energy of this reaction into electricity that can power homes and offices without releasing carbon into the air or releasing radioactive waste into the environment.

For decades, scientists have experimented with fusion reactions, so far unable to create a reaction that produces more energy than it consumes. Although the achievement is significant, major engineering and scientific challenges still lie ahead.

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Creating a net energy gain would require running one of the world’s largest lasers, and the resources needed to recreate the reaction on the scale required to make fusion practical for power generation are enormous. More importantly, engineers have yet to develop mechanisms that can practically convert this reaction into electricity that can be put into the grid at an affordable cost.

According to scientists, devices large enough to generate fusion power at scale would require extraordinarily difficult materials to produce. At the same time, the reaction produces neutrons that put so much stress on the equipment that creates it that it can be destroyed in the process.

And then there’s the question of whether the technology can be improved in time to tackle climate change.

Nevertheless, fusion technology researchers and investors hailed the breakthrough as an important advance.

“Having this happen in the U.S. would be a source of great pride,” said David Edelman, head of policy and global affairs at TAE, a large private fusion energy company. “This is a very important step on the road to fusion energy.”

It comes as the Biden administration prioritizes fusion energy research on its climate and energy agenda. The projects are at the front of the line for tens of billions of dollars in subsidies and grants approved by Biden’s major climate package over the summer, called the Inflation Reduction Act.

Over the past few decades, the United States, Russia, and various European nations have poured billions of public dollars into mastering this science, believing that if they succeed, it will be a boon to the world.

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