The head of the Department of Energy, other federal scientific leaders, and hundreds of scientists announced that the fusion reaction they ran at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California achieved net energy. This is the first time humankind has ever done this.
Fusion energy sounds like an impossible pipe dream. But scientists have been working with fusion for decades and it has lots of potential.
As the increased urgency for tackling climate change has made clean energy solutions more popular, private investors have put almost $5 billion into fusion startups.
The head of the Department of Energy as well as other federal scientific leaders announced that a fusion reaction could be achieved at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California. The reaction generated more power than what was put into it and is a monumental achievement for humankind.
Fusion is the way that the sun creates energy, but recreating it here on earth has been difficult. Achieving net positive energy solves the larger problem of making fusion a viable science. This should lead to greater availability of fusion as an affordable power source.
Fusion is particularly attractive because it doesn’t produce any carbon emissions or the long-lasting nuclear waste that accompanies nuclear fission. This is especially crucial considering that, with the increasing urgency of climate change, we need all the help we can get to avoid further environmental damage.
A team from the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory recently achieved energy breakeven on December 5th, 2022. This happened when they achieved fusion ignition, which is also known as scientific energy breakeven. They created more energy by using a laser to drive the fusion reaction than was used to create it in the first place!
“This is important. Earlier results were records, but not yet able to produce more energy back than is put in,” said Andrew Holland, CEO of the industry’s trade group, the Fusion Industry Association. “For the first time on Earth, scientists have confirmed a fusion experiment that released more power than it initially took to create, proving the physical basis for fusion energy. This will lead to fusion being a safe and sustainable form of energy in the near future.”
One step toward the ‘holy grail’ of clean energy
Questions swirled in the days leading up to the press conference because fusion as a potential viable energy source has increased dramatically in recent years as concerns about climate change and energy security have become more acute.
There are over 90 nuclear power reactors currently operating in the US, but those nuclear reactors create energy with nuclear fission. Nuclear fission is when a neutron smashes into a larger atom and causes it to split in two, releasing a lot of energy. Nuclear reactions do not release any carbon dioxide emissions and are considered clean energy by the U.S. Department of Energy.
The United States is getting 19% of its electricity from Nuclear power plants in 2021 according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, and nuclear energy makes up 50% of clean power generated in the U.S., according to the Department of Energy.
Looking beyond the inarguable benefits of nuclear power, those reactors also generate lots of enervating radioactive waste that needs a proper disposal, and most countries have come up with solutions. Unfortunately, when it comes to disposing nuclear fission waste, U.S. has been unable to provide a practical and safe solution.
Fusion happens when two atoms collide and combine to form a heavier atom. There is no carbon dioxide emissions or nuclear waste, which is what makes it one of humanity’s best hopes for unlimited sustainable energy. Of course, there are challenges with sustaining the reaction here on earth, and scientists have been trying to do it for decades. A major challenge with generating fusion is that it requires massive amounts of energy to power the reaction, but this experiment finally demonstrated that the amount of energy produced outstrips the amount used to start it.
“Scientists have struggled to prove that fusion releases more energy than is put in since the 1950s” said plasma physicist Arthur Turrell.
“During that time, every time anyone asked for funding to develop fusion power, they would be told ‘first, you must show it works in principle.’ In other words, they have to show that the experiment produces more energy than it uses,” said Turrell. Livinglmore has now done this for the first time in history.
The success of these projects could lead to more private investment in fusion, which is already a hot space—investors have put over $4.8 billion into private fusion energy startups since the second quarter of 2021, according to the Fusion Industry Association.
“Although this is not classified as cold fusion, it may be that the sudden release of neutrons, gamma rays and heat during one of the experiments is what caused this anomaly. However, the physicists involved are keen to point out that the heat could have come from another source.”
With fusion, the private industry is seeing this as a win.
“Now, the privately funded fusion industry will take the next steps, turning experimental results like this into a viable source of clean, safe energy,” said Holland. “In short, this will show the world that fusion is not science fiction: it will soon be a viable source of energy. Of course there are still many steps between these experimental results and fusion power plants, but this is an important milestone that brings us closer to the day when fusion will provide the world with clean, safe, and abundant energy.”