U.S. Department of Energy officials announced a history-making success in nuclear fusion on Tuesday; For the first time, US scientists have produced more energy from fusion than the laser energy used to power the experiment.
The so-called “net energy gain” is an important milestone in a decades-long attempt to extract clean, boundless energy from nuclear fusion—the reaction that occurs when two or more atoms fuse together.
The experiment delivered 2.05 megajoules of energy to the target and resulted in an output of 3.15 megajoules of fusion energy – producing 50% more energy than what was put in. For the first time, an experiment resulted in a significant energy gain.
Live updates: US officials announce nuclear fusion breakthrough
“This tremendous scientific breakthrough is a milestone for the future of clean energy,” said Alex Padilla, a Democratic US Senator from California.
The invention was made on December 5 by a team of scientists at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory’s National Ignition Facility in California – a facility the size of a sports stadium and equipped with 192 lasers.
US Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm described the breakthrough as “a landmark achievement”.
Granholm said scientists at Livermore and other national laboratories are working to help the United States “solve humanity’s most complex and pressing problems, such as providing clean energy to combat climate change and providing nuclear deterrence without nuclear testing.”
Livermore’s manager, Dr. Kim Budil described the scientists’ attempts to realize fusion ignition in the laboratory as “one of the most important scientific challenges humanity has ever overcome” and applauded the work of the scientists in his laboratory.
“To achieve this is a triumph of science, engineering and, above all, people,” Budil said in a statement. “Crossing this threshold is the vision that has driven 60 years of dedicated pursuit. These are the problems US national laboratories were created to solve.”
Never mind a power plant, we’re still a long way from having nuclear fusion power in the power grid. While the US project was groundbreaking, it only produced enough energy to boil about 2.5 gallons of water, Tony Roulstone, a fusion expert in Cambridge University’s Department of Engineering, told CNN.
This may not seem like much, but the experiment is still very important because scientists have shown that they can actually create more energy than they started. While there are many more steps before this becomes commercially viable, experts say this is a major hurdle to overcome with nuclear fusion.
“This is very important, because from an energy standpoint, if you’re not extracting more energy than you expend, it can’t be an energy source,” says Julio Friedmann, chief scientist and former energy technologist at Carbon Direct. a Livermore told CNN on Monday. “Previous breakthroughs have been significant, but this is not the same as generating energy that could one day be used on a larger scale.”
Past fusion experiments, including one in the UK, produced more energy, but not nearly as big of an energy gain. For example, earlier this year, UK scientists produced a record-breaking 59 megajoules of energy – about 20 times as much as the US-based project. Despite this, the UK project only showed an energy gain of less than one megajoule.
There are still many years and a long way to go to make the project commercially viable. Anne White, head of MIT’s Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering, told CNN that neither the US or UK-based projects “have the equipment and steps necessary to convert fusion neutrons into electricity.”
But Roulstone pointed out that big ambitious nuclear power projects have to start somewhere: In 1942, scientists in Chicago ran the first fission nuclear reactor for just 5 minutes on first start-up; 15 years later, the first US-based nuclear power plant was commissioned in Pennsylvania.