If businesses can scale up the technology to a commercial level in the ensuing decades, US scientists’ Tuesday announcement of a breakthrough in fusion energy might one day help slow down climate change.
According to the US Energy Department, researchers at the Lawrence Livermore National Lab in California momentarily increased the amount of energy in a fusion experiment on December 5 for the first time. The energy was released when two light atoms fused into a denser one by the application of a laser to a target of fuel.
At an Energy Department event, Lawrence Livermore’s director, Kimberly Budil, told reporters that commercialization is likely not five or six decades away, but rather sooner. In a few decades of study on the underlying technology, Budil added, “we could be in a position to build a power plant.”
About a century ago, scientists discovered that the sun is powered by fusion, and they have been working to generate fusion on Earth ever since.
The laser delivered 2.05 megajoules of energy to the target, and the experiment temporarily accomplished what is known as fusion ignition by producing 3.15 megajoules of energy output, according to the Energy Department.
The experiment at Livermore is a “tremendous example of what patients can achieve,” according to Arati Prabhakar, head of the White House Office of Sciences and Technology Policy, who first learned about fusion there while interning there in 1978 as a teenager.
The accomplishment, according to nuclear physicists outside the lab, will be a significant step forward, but much more research must be done before fusion can be made economically feasible.
The energy output of the experiment, according to Tony Roulstone, a nuclear energy specialist at the University of Cambridge, was barely 0.5% of the energy required to activate the lasers in the first place.
As a result, Roulstone remarked, “we can claim that this discovery… is a success of the science—but still a long way from producing practical, abundant, clean energy.” A power plant would need to provide enough energy to run the lasers and accomplish continuous ignition in order to be commercially viable.
Budil explained the experiment by saying, “This is one igniting capsule [of fuel] one time.” “You need to be able to achieve many, many fusion ignition events per minute to realize commercial fusion energy.
The electrical sector cautiously welcomed the move but emphasized that in order to complete the energy transition, fusion should not delay work on developing other options including solar and wind power, battery storage, and nuclear fission.
According to Andrew Sowder, a senior technology executive at nonprofit energy research and development organization EPRI, “it’s the first step that says ‘Yes, this is not just fantasy, this can be done, in principle.
The findings of the lab will benefit businesses in figuring out how to make lasers more efficient, according to Debra Callahan, a senior scientist with Focused Energy who worked at Lawrence Livermore until late this year. “Everyone is enthused about what has been accomplished and what is ahead.”
According to the Fusion Industry Association, Focused Energy is one of the many businesses attempting to commercialize fusion energy that has garnered approximately $5 billion in private and public finance, with more than $2.8 billion arriving in the 12 months leading up to June of this year. Many are attempting to replace lasers with strong magnets, such as Commonwealth Fusion Systems.