Planet Earth may be one step closer to acquiring unlimited clean energy, thanks to a group of scientists who managed to spark a fusion reaction in a California lab than generated more energy than it consumed.
It is the first time such a result has been produced.
In August, U.S. government scientists at the National Ignition Facility at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in Livermore, California, achieved a fusion reaction that, if only for a moment, sustained itself. According to the Daily Mail, it’s “a major feat because fusion requires such high temperatures and pressures that it easily fizzles out.”
This is all the more impressive when you realize we spend just $700M/yr on fusion research… 1/500th the amount on subsidies for wind and solar https://t.co/yLvtq0Zsup
— Sherman McCoy (@wasphyxiation) December 11, 2022
It’s a monumental breakthrough in the quest to harness nuclear fusion — the reaction that powers the sun — as an energy source that would entirely eliminate the need for fossil fuels, such as oil and coal.
The experiment exceeded the team’s expectations, generating more energy than they predicted and damaging some of their equipment in the process.
“The ultimate goal, still years away, is to generate power the way the sun generates heat, by pushing hydrogen atoms so close to each other that they combine into helium, which releases torrents of energy,” the Daily Mail reports. “A single cupful of that substance could power an average-sized house for hundreds of years, with no carbon emissions.”
Plasma physicist, Dr. Arthur Turrell, explained to the Financial Times the importance of this achievement.
“If this is confirmed, we are witnessing a moment of history,” he said. “Scientists have struggled to show that fusion can release more energy than is put in since the 1950s, and the researchers at Lawrence Livermore seem to have finally and absolutely smashed this decades-old goal.”
The experiment, which was first reported earlier this month, utilized the world’s largest laser. The 192 beams brought the temperatures up to an unimaginable three times that of the center of the sun. The result was a net energy gain, the first of its kind.
The benefits of a nuclear fusion reaction — a process that fuses together two types of hydrogen from water molecules — are “enormous,” says experimental plasma physicist Carolyn Kuranz.
While Kuranz was not part of the Livermore experiment, she explains that, when the two types of hydrogen fuse together, “a small amount (milligrams) of fuel produces enormous amounts of energy and it’s also very ‘clean’ in that it produces no radioactive waste.”
“It’s basically limitless, clean energy that can be deployed anywhere,” she said.
It’ll likely be decades before you’ll be able to charge your phone with the power of the sun, but this is an exciting start.
We worry about technological plateaus for a decade, and then in the space of a week AI passes both the Turing Test & the Bar Exam and we get a net gain fusion reaction. https://t.co/CgYNJy4cRj
— Ethan Mollick (@emollick) December 11, 2022
The U.S. Department of Energy will be at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory this Tuesday to announce “a major scientific breakthrough.”
“Initial diagnostic data suggests another successful experiment at the National Ignition Facility,” according to the lab. “However, the exact yield is still being determined and we can’t confirm that it is over the threshold at this time. That analysis is in process, so publishing the information…before that process is complete would be inaccurate.”
If confirmed, Nicholas Hawker, chief executive of Oxford-based start-up First Light Fusion called the breakthrough “game-changing.”
“It couldn’t be more profound for fusion power,” he said.
Michael Campbell, director of the LLE at the University of Rochester in New York, echoed the sentiment.
“It gives the US a lab capability to study burning plasmas and high-energy physics relevant for [nuclear weapons] stewardship,” he told Physics Today. “It’s an enormous scientific achievement.”
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