US scientists boost clean energy hopes with fusion power breakthrough

According to three people familiar with the preliminary results of a recent experiment, US government scientists have made a breakthrough in the search for unlimited carbon-free energy by achieving a net energy gain in a fusion reaction for the first time.

Since the 1950s, physicists have sought to exploit the fusion reaction that powers the sunbut no group had been able to produce more energy from the reaction than it consumed – a step known as the net energy gain or target gain, which would help prove that the process could provide a reliable and plentiful alternative to fossil fuels and conventional nuclear energy.

The federal Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, which uses a process called inertial confinement fusion that involves bombarding a tiny pellet of hydrogen plasma with the world’s largest laser, has achieved a net energy gain in a fusion experiment over the past two weeks, the people said.

Although many scientists believe that fusion power plants are still decades away, the technology’s potential is hard to ignore. Fusion reactions emit no carbon, produce no long-lived radioactive waste, and a small cup of hydrogen could theoretically power a home for hundreds of years.

The US breakthrough comes as the world grapples with high energy prices and the need to quickly move away from burning fossil fuels to keep average global temperatures from reaching dangerous levels. Through the Cut Inflation Act, the Biden administration is investing nearly $370 billion in new low-carbon energy subsidies in a bid to cut emissions and win a global tech race own new generation.

The fusion reaction at the US government facility produced about 2.5 megajoules of energy, or about 120% of the 2.1 megajoules of energy from the lasers, people with knowledge of the results said, adding that the data was still under analysis.

A diagram explaining how the US government's National Ignition Facility is experimenting with inertial confinement fusion to obtain energy from the fusion reaction

The US Department of Energy said Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm and Undersecretary for Nuclear Security Jill Hruby would announce “a major scientific breakthrough” at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory on Tuesday. The ministry declined to comment further.

The lab confirmed that a successful experiment had recently taken place at its National Ignition Facility, but said analysis of the results was ongoing.

“Initial diagnostic data suggests another successful experiment at the National Ignition Facility. However, the exact yield is still being determined and we cannot confirm that it exceeds the threshold at this time,” he said. “This analysis is in progress, therefore the publication of the information. . . before this process is complete would be inaccurate.

Two of the people with knowledge of the results said the power output was higher than expected, which damaged some diagnostic equipment, complicating the analysis. The breakthrough was already widely discussed by scientists, the people added.

“If this is confirmed, we are witnessing a moment in history,” said Dr Arthur Turrell, a plasma physicist whose book The star builders traces efforts to achieve fusion power. “Scientists have struggled to show that fusion can release more energy than it has since the 1950s, and the Lawrence Livermore researchers appear to have finally and absolutely shattered that decades-old goal. “

The $3.5 billion National Ignition Facility was primarily designed to test nuclear weapons by simulating explosions, but has since been used to advance fusion energy research. It came closest in the world to net energy gain last year when it produced 1.37 megajoules from a fusion reaction, which was about 70% of the energy of the lasers on this occasion.

While launching a new fusion energy strategy at the White House this year, Congressman Don Beyer, chairman of the bipartisan fusion energy caucus, described the technology as the “holy grail” of the world. clean energy, adding: “Fusion has the potential to lift more global citizens out of poverty than any since the invention of fire.

Most fusion research focuses on a different approach known as magnetic confinement fusion, in which hydrogen fuel is held in place by powerful magnets and heated to extreme temperatures so that atomic nuclei fuse together.

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 power in the 2030s.

In the 12 months to the end of June, fusion companies raised $2.83 billion in investments, according to the Fusion Industry Association, bringing total private sector investment to date to nearly $4.9 billion. of dollars.

Nicholas Hawker, chief executive of Oxford-based start-up First Light Fusion, which is developing a similar approach to that used at NIF, described the potential breakthrough as “revolutionary”.

“It couldn’t be deeper for fusion power,” he said.

Additional reporting by David Sheppard and Derek Brower

Leave a Comment