US scientists at Lawrence Livermore National Lab have entered what they’re calling the “age of ignition.”
The National Ignition Facility at Lawrence Livermore had a major breakthrough in December 2022 when, for the first time ever, it achieved “ignition.”
That means it generated more energy from a nuclear fusion device than it used to produce the reaction in the first place.
There are a few ways of producing a fusion reaction on Earth.
NIF uses lasers to create temperatures of 180 million degrees Fahrenheit and intense pressure 100 billion times that of the planet’s atmosphere. It takes a lot of energy to power those lasers.
When NIF achieved ignition in 2022, it was a landmark experiment more than 70 years in the making. But NIF was just getting started.
In December 2022, it generated 1. 1 megajoules of extra energy, then 1. 83 MJ that following July, 0. 5 MJ on October 8, and finally 1. 2 MJ at the end of that month.
NIF’s main role is weapon research but it could impact fusion energy.
A world run on fusion
Fusion power is considered by some to be the holy grail of emissions-free energy. Right now nuclear reactors run on fission, the energy created when atoms split apart.
On the other hand, fusion — when atoms combine — is the cosmos’ energy of choice and is what powers stars like our sun.
Some estimates predict that fusion could produce almost 4 million times as much energy as fossil fuels like coal or oil and four times as much as fission.
Multiple countries are currently working to build the first fusion power plant.
Japan, for example, recently completed the world’s largest fusion reactor yet — the JT-60SA tokamak. And France is working on an even larger reactor — ITER — that, when finished, will stand nearly 100 feet tall.
JT-60SA and ITER are the next generation of fusion reactors. However, they’re still only meant for research purposes. The scientists will learn from the mammoth machine to determine how to produce fusion power on a larger scale using future reactors, which won’t come into existence for decades.
Private companies are also looking to provide commercial electricity in the US within the next decade. However, they have many obstacles.
Private investors are getting into the game
Billionaires like Bill Gates, Sam Altman, and Jeff Bezos have even hopped on the fusion funding bandwagon.
There’s a lot of hope for fusion’s potential as the climate crisis continues and energy demands climb.
But both science and engineering problems remain.
Only NIF has been able to reach ignition, so far. Moreover, the fuel many facilities use to power their reactions is very expensive.
And while many call fusion green energy, it still produces nuclear waste, albeit less long-lived than fission reactors.
There’s still quite a gap between the age of ignition and the age of fusion power.