Nuclear Fusion Breakthrough Announced By US DOE

Scientists at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory achieved a fusion ignition on December 5, when for the first time, more energy was produced from fusion than was needed to power the laser used in the experiment.

For those of us who are not nuclear scientists, the form of nuclear energy we are accustomed to today is called fission. It splits atoms apart, which releases enormous amounts of energy. Fusion is just the opposite. It smooshes atoms together, which also releases enormous amounts of energy, but without any radioactive waste.

Research into nuclear fusion has been going on for more than a century, but until this latest breakthrough, it required more energy to force the atoms together than the energy released by the process. Although this is a dramatic breakthrough, it could be decades before this technology is ready to produce the unlimited clean electrical energy that it theoretically possible from fusion technology.

“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 US 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.”

Dr. Arati Prabhakar, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, added, “We have had a theoretical understanding of fusion for over a century, but the journey from knowing to doing can be long and arduous. Today’s milestone shows what we can do with perseverance.”

“LLNL’s experiment surpassed the fusion threshold by delivering 2.05 megajoules (MJ) of energy to the target, resulting in 3.15 MJ 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 program in the United States. Combined with private-sector investment, there is a lot of momentum to drive rapid progress toward fusion commercialization.”

According to the DOE press release, 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 hypothesized 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 modeling 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, Calif. — 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.

“Achieving ignition was made possible by dedication from LLNL employees as well as countless collaborators at DOE’s Los Alamos National Laboratory, Sandia National Laboratories, and Nevada National Security Site; General Atomics; academic institutions, including the University of Rochester’s Laboratory for Laser Energetics, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the University of California, Berkeley, and Princeton University; international partners, including the United Kingdom’s Atomic Weapons Establishment and the French Alternative Energies and Atomic Energy Commission; and stakeholders at DOE and NNSA and in Congress.”

Curb Your Enthusiasm For Fusion

Is there reason to get excited about this news? The answer to that is a definite maybe. Fusion promises an abundance of low cost, zero emissions energy. But as the Washington Post points out, creating the net energy gain required the engagement of one of the largest lasers in the world and the resources needed to recreate the reaction on the scale required to make fusion practical for energy production are immense. Engineers have yet to develop machinery capable of affordably turning a fusion reaction into electricity that can be deployed to the grid.

Building devices that large would require materials that are extraordinarily difficult to produce. In addition, a fusion reaction creates neutrons that put a tremendous amount of stress on the equipment creating it and cause it to get destroyed in the process. It may take decades to solve all the challenges of making clean energy  from fusion.

Some people refer to fusion as creating a “second sun.” The New Yorker (paywall) has a different perspective. It suggests we use the sun we already have to power our civilization until such time as fusion technology is perfected. We know how to capture the sun’s rays on photovoltaic panels, and we know how to take advantage of the fact that the heats the Earth, which create breezes that can power wind turbines.

Locally sourced electricity has other benefits. Communities around the world would end up with local control of their energy supply. And since one technology — renewable energy — is ready to go and the other — fusion — isn’t, the proper sequence should be obvious. If things work out for fusion, a few decades from now we can take down the solar panels and wind turbines we erect today and replace them with fusion reactors. But if we don’t make that first transition to renewable energy right now, those elegant reactors will be deployed on a badly degraded planet, the New Yorker says.

Maintaining The Status Quo

One reason why this fusion breakthrough is making so many people giddy, according to the New Yorker, is because it implicitly promises that we could use fusion power to run the world in its current form. Fusion is centralized power that fits the old model that electricity should move down a one way grid to its final users instead of an interlocked web of small scale solar and wind providers.

The Takeaway

The hoopla about fusion power is worldwide. Everyone is thinking, or talking, or writing about how close we are to the dream of abundant electrical energy that is almost too cheap to meter. Think of the millions (billions?) of people who could be lifted out of poverty. Of course, renewables can do the same thing. In fact, in some parts of Africa communities are bypassing the intermediary of a utility grid entirely and going straight to locally sourced renewables.

Maybe the need to develop a second sun is not quite as vital to the global community as leveraging the benefits of the sun we already have with technologies that already exist? To some observers, fusion is an answer in search of a question. It’s technically interesting, but in the final analysis is largely irrelevant.

Steve Hanley

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new."

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