U.S. government scientists are reportedly gearing up to announce the first net energy gain from a fusion reaction–meaning a reaction that created more energy than it consumed–which represents a major milestone in the quest to develop a near-limitless source of clean power using the same intense nuclear processes that fuel the Sun and other stars. The news was first reported in the Financial Times on Sunday, citing unnamed sources close to the experiment.
Scientists have worked for decades to harness the enormous energy generated by atoms merging in nuclear fusion reactions. Although these reactions are only a fraction of what is possible, they can generate enough energy to meet all of the world’s energy requirements in a safe and reliable manner. However, the goal of creating a functional fusion reactor that works will take many decades, if it ever becomes feasible. Now, U.S. Department of Energy’s Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory has apparently made this vision a reality by producing more energy than it took to create the fusion reaction. U.S. Secretary of Energy Jennifer M. Granholm and Under Secretary for Nuclear Security and National Nuclear Security Administration Administrator Jill Hruby are expected to announce this “major scientific breakthrough” at a press conference on Tuesday at 10 a.m. EST, according to a statement emailed to Motherboard.
The achievement took place at the National Ignition Facility (NIF), an experiment at LLNL that sparks fusion reactions by shooting nearly 200 lasers at a tiny capsule of atoms that serves as nuclear fuel. Indirectly, the laser beams trigger an “epic imposition” of the capsule. This creates the conditions necessary to produce fusion.
The breakthrough reaction at NIF consumed 2. 1 megajoules from the lasers and spat out 2. 5 megajoules, producing a boost of about 20 percent, according to New Scientist. There are a few caveats, however: FT reports that the reaction was so powerful that it damaged some diagnostic equipment, complicating analysis, and the full NIF experiment requires much more power to run than just the laser components. So, even if the reports are true, we have not yet reached the “breakeven” point at which a reaction generates more power than all of the mechanisms used to induce it.
Even though fusion energy is, again, still likely decades away–if it’s even possible–a net energy gain would be a clear sign that fusion technologies are showing real promise, and that they might one day evolve into a working source of abundant clean energy that could replace fossil fuels, assuming this outcome is confirmed during the briefing on Tuesday.
The Washington Post reported that an unnamed source had confirmed the breakthrough and stated it was only a matter “of time,” although the LLNL indicated the results are still being interpreted.
“Initial diagnostic data suggests another successful experiment at the National Ignition Facility,” a representative of the laboratory told the Financial Times. However, we are still determining the yield and can’t verify that it exceeds the threshold. That analysis is in process, so publishing the information…before that process is complete would be inaccurate.”
The potential milestone follows several wins for NIF over the past several years. In 2021, the experiment created the world’s first burning plasma, complete with self-sustaining fusion reactions. In recent months, the facility has also probed the effects of magnetism on fusion reactions and revealed signs of new physics.
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