Fusion energy breakthrough by US scientists boosts clean power hopes

Net energy gain suggests that technology may provide a plentiful, carbon-free replacement for fossil fuels.

According to three sources with knowledge of early findings from a recent experiment, US government scientists have made progress in their quest for unlimited, carbon-free energy by successfully obtaining a net energy gain in a fusion reaction for the first time.

Since the 1950s, physicists have tried to harness the fusion reaction that powers the sun, but no one has yet succeeded in producing more energy from the reaction than it consumes. This achievement is known as net energy gain or target gain, and it would demonstrate that the process can offer a dependable, abundant alternative to fossil fuels and conventional nuclear energy.

According to the sources, the government Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California had just accomplished net energy gain in a fusion experiment using the inertial confinement fusion technique that entails hitting a small pellet of hydrogen plasma with the largest laser in the world.

Fusion power plants may still be decades away, according to many experts, but the technology's promise is undeniable. A modest cup of hydrogen fuel could hypothetically power a home for hundreds of years while producing no carbon emissions or persistent radioactive waste from fusion reactions.

The US discovery comes as the globe struggles with high energy costs and the need of switching quickly from fossil fuel use to prevent dangerously high average global temperatures. The government of President Joe Biden is investing approximately $370 billion in new subsidies for low-carbon energy via the Inflation Reduction Act in an attempt to reduce emissions and triumph in the race for next-generation clean technology.

The sources with knowledge of the findings claimed that the fusion reaction at the US government facility generated around 2.5 megajoules of energy, which was about 120% of the 2.1 megajoules of energy in the lasers. They added that the data was still being analyzed.

The US Department of Energy has said that on Tuesday at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm and Under-Secretary for Nuclear Security Jill Hruby would reveal "a substantial scientific accomplishment." The division refused to make any additional comments.

The lab acknowledged that one experiment had recently been successful at its National Ignition Facility, but said that more study of the findings was being done.

Initial diagnostic results indicate that the National Ignition Facility conducted another successful experiment. The precise yield is still being calculated, therefore we are unable to confirm that it has above the threshold at this moment," it said. Publishing the material before that analysis is finished would be incorrect since it is still in progress.

Two persons who were aware of the findings said that the energy output was more than anticipated, which complicated the investigation by damaging several diagnostic tools. The scientists were already debating the discovery extensively, the sources said.

According to Dr. Arthur Turrell, a plasma scientist whose book The Star Builders details the pursuit of fusion power, "If this is proven, we are seeing a moment of history." Since the 1950s, scientists have fought to demonstrate that fusion can produce more energy than it consumes, but researchers at Lawrence Livermore appear to have finally and completely achieved this decades-old aim.

Although the $3.5 billion National Ignition Facility was initially intended to test nuclear weapons by simulating explosions, fusion energy research is now being advanced by it. When it created 1.37 megajoules from a fusion reaction last year, which was around 70% of the energy in the lasers at the time, it came the closest to net energy gain in the history of the globe.

Congressman Don Beyer, the head of the bipartisan fusion energy caucus, called the technology the "holy grail" of clean energy at the unveiling of a new White House fusion power strategy this year. He added: "Fusion has the potential to lift more citizens of the world out of poverty than anything since the invention of fire."

The majority of fusion research is concentrated on a different strategy called magnetic confinement fusion, in which the hydrogen fuel is held in place by strong magnets and heated to very high temperatures to cause the atomic nuclei to fuse.

Large government supported facilities like the Joint European Torus in Oxford have historically carried out this research, but in recent years, money has also poured into private enterprises that promise to provide fusion power by the 2030s.

According to the Fusion Industry Association, fusion firms raised $2.83 billion in investment in the 12 months leading up to the end of June, increasing the total private sector investment to date to approximately $4.9 billion.

A comparable strategy to that utilized at NIF is being developed by Oxford-based start-up First Light Fusion, whose CEO, Nicholas Hawker, called the possible discovery "game-changing."

"For fusion power, it couldn't be more significant."