U.S. government scientists have made a breakthrough in the quest for infinite, zero-carbon energy by realizing a net energy gain in a thermofusion reaction for the first time, according to three people with knowledge of the initial results of the latest experiment.
Since the 1950s, physicists have tried to harness the fusion reaction that powers the sun, but no group has been able to produce more energy from the reaction than it consumes—a step known as net energy gain, or target gain, that will help prove the process. can provide a reliable, abundant alternative to fossil fuels and conventional nuclear power.
The federal Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, which uses a process called inertial fusion, which involves bombarding a tiny hydrogen plasma with the world’s largest laser, made a net energy gain in a fusion experiment over the past two weeks. .
Although many scientists believe that fusion power plants are still decades away, the potential of the technology is hard to ignore. Fusion reactions emit no carbon, produce no long-lived radioactive waste, and a small cup of hydrogen fuel could theoretically power a home for hundreds of years.
The U.S. breakthrough comes as the world grapples with high energy prices and the need to rapidly transition away from burning fossil fuels to stop average global temperatures from reaching dangerous levels. Through the Inflation Reduction Act, the Biden administration is spending almost $370 billion in new subsidies for low-carbon energy in an effort to cut emissions and win the global race for the next generation of clean technology.
The fusion reaction at the US government facility produced about 2.5 megajoules of energy, about 120 percent of the 2.1 megajoules in the lasers, people familiar with the results said, adding that the data was still being analyzed.
Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm and Undersecretary for Nuclear Safety Jill Hruby will announce a “major scientific breakthrough” at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory on Tuesday, the US Department of Energy said. The department declined to comment further.
The lab recently confirmed a successful experiment at the National Ignition Facility, but said the results are still being analyzed.
“Preliminary diagnostic data indicate another successful test at the National Ignition Facility. However, the exact yield is still being determined and we cannot confirm that it has exceeded the limit at this time,” the statement said. “This review is in progress, so the information is being published. . . it would be wrong until this process is completed.”
Two of the people familiar with the results said the energy output was higher than expected, damaging some diagnostic equipment and complicating analysis. The leap was already widely discussed by scientists, the people added.
“If this is confirmed, we will witness a moment in history,” said Dr. Arthur Turrell, a plasma physicist. Star Builders charts efforts to achieve fusion power. “Scientists have struggled to show that fusion can release more energy than was put in since the 1950s, and Lawrence Livermore’s researchers finally and completely destroyed that decades-old goal.”
The $3.5 billion National Ignition Facility was originally designed to test nuclear weapons by simulating explosions, but has since been used to advance fusion energy research. Last year, it produced 1.37 megajoules from the fusion reaction, about 70 percent of the energy in lasers at the time, making it the closest to net energy gain worldwide.
At this year’s White House unveiling of the new fusion energy strategy, Congressman Don Beyer, chairman of the bipartisan fusion energy task force, described the technology as the ‘holy grail’ of clean energy, adding: “Fusion has the potential to lift more citizens. More of the world has been lifted out of poverty since the invention of firewood.”
Most fusion research has focused on a different approach, known as magnetic confinement fusion, in which hydrogen fuel is held in place by powerful magnets and heated to temperatures extreme enough to fuse atomic nuclei.
Historically, this science has been carried out by large publicly funded laboratories such as the Joint European Torus in Oxford, but in recent years investment has also flowed into private companies promising to deliver fusion energy by the 2030s.
In the 12 months to the end of June, fusion companies raised $2.83 billion in investment, bringing total private sector investment to date to nearly $4.9 billion, according to the Fusion Industry Association.
Nicholas Hawker, chief executive of Oxford-based startup First Light Fusion, which is developing an approach similar to that used at NIF, described the potential breakthrough as a “game changer”.
“It couldn’t get any deeper for fusion power,” he said.
Additional reporting by David Sheppard and Derek Brower