US announces fusion energy breakthrough that could revolutionise future of clean power
On 13 December, the US announced that it successfully conducted the first controlled experiment in history to achieve fusion ignition, paving the way for almost unlimited clean energy.
The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) and DOE's National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) today announced the achievement of fusion ignition at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) – a major scientific breakthrough decades in the making that will pave the way for advancements in national defense and the future of clean power.
Fusion is the process by which two light nuclei combine to form a single heavier nucleus, releasing a large amount of energy. In the 1960s, a group of pioneering scientists at LLNL hypothesised that lasers could be used to induce fusion in a laboratory setting.
Led by physicist John Nuckolls, who later served as LLNL director from 1988 to 1994, this revolutionary idea became inertial confinement fusion, kicking off more than 60 years of research and development in lasers, optics, diagnostics, target fabrication, computer modelling and simulation and experimental design.
To pursue this concept, LLNL built a series of increasingly powerful laser systems, leading to the creation of NIF, the world's largest and most energetic laser system.
NIF – located at LLNL in Livermore, California – is the size of a sports stadium and uses powerful laser beams to create temperatures and pressures like those in the cores of stars and giant planets, and inside exploding nuclear weapons.
"The pursuit of fusion ignition in the laboratory is one of the most significant scientific challenges ever tackled by humanity, and achieving it is a triumph of science, engineering, and most of all, people," LLNL Director Dr. Kim Budil said.
On 5 December, a team at LLNL's National Ignition Facility (NIF) conducted the first controlled fusion experiment in history to reach this milestone, also known as scientific energy breakeven, meaning it produced more energy from fusion than the laser energy used to drive it.
"Crossing this threshold is the vision that has driven 60 years of dedicated pursuit – a continual process of learning, building, expanding knowledge and capability, and then finding ways to overcome the new challenges that emerged,” Budil continued. “These are the problems that the US national laboratories were created to solve."
This first-of-its-kind feat will provide invaluable insights into the prospects of clean fusion energy, which would be a game-changer for efforts to achieve President Biden's goal of a net-zero carbon economy.
"This is a landmark achievement for the researchers and staff at the National Ignition Facility who have dedicated their careers to seeing fusion ignition become a reality, and this milestone will undoubtedly spark even more discovery," said U.S. Secretary of Energy Jennifer M. Granholm.
"The Biden-Harris Administration is committed to supporting our world-class scientists – like the team at NIF – whose work will help us solve humanity's most complex and pressing problems, like providing clean power to combat climate change and maintaining a nuclear deterrent without nuclear testing."
LLNL's experiment surpassed the fusion threshold by delivering 2.05MJ of energy to the target, resulting in 3.15MJ of fusion energy output, demonstrating for the first time a most fundamental science basis for inertial fusion energy (IFE).
Many advanced science and technology developments are still needed to achieve simple, affordable IFE to power homes and businesses, and DOE is currently restarting a broad-based, coordinated IFE programme in the United States.
Combined with private-sector investment, there is a lot of momentum to drive rapid progress toward fusion commercialisation.
"This astonishing scientific advance puts us on the precipice of a future no longer reliant on fossil fuels but instead powered by new clean fusion energy," concluded US Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (NY) said.