US Dept of Energy set to reveal fusion breakthrough
If Uncle Sam got more power out of a reaction than it put in, it's a new dawn for clean energy
Updated The US Department of Energy (DoE) is expected to announce a major milestone in the ongoing effort to generate clean power through nuclear fusion.
According to reports in The Financial Times, The Washington Post, and Bloomberg, Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm is said to be scheduled to speak at a press conference on Tuesday at which she will reveal that researchers at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) have made "a major scientific breakthrough."
That breakthrough is said to consist of generating more power from an inertial fusion reaction than went into creating it, a milestone known as net gain or target gain.
As a point of comparison, last August, LLNL's National Ignition Facility reported a fusion reaction that generated power output that was just 70 percent of power input.
Fusion – fusing two atomic nuclei to release energy – has been an aspiration since early to mid last century and has been bestowed with billions in funding since then.
The experiment is said to have involved the fusing of hydrogen isotopes suspended in a superheated state of plasma to create helium nuclei and release energetic neutrons.
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The DoE did not respond to a request for comment. An LLNL spokesperson said, "We are not able to comment ahead of tomorrow’s announcement. It is scheduled for 10 am Eastern, and will be live streamed at energy.gov/live."
LLNL announced a prior milestone, achieving a burning-plasma state, back in January 2022.
"Fusion has the potential to provide an energy source that is virtually inexhaustible and environmentally benign, producing no combustion products or greenhouse gasses," the DoE explains on its website. "While fusion is a nuclear process, the products of the fusion reaction (helium and neutrons) are not intrinsically radioactive."
Fusion has the potential to provide an energy source that is virtually inexhaustible and environmentally benign
Endless, non-polluting energy has obvious appeal, particularly to the extent it can replace limited, polluting fossil fuels known to harm the climate and environment and to prop up hostile regimes. Thus, the Biden administration in March convened a Fusion Summit to discuss how the hoped-for commercial fusion economy may take shape.
In September, 2022, the DoE announced plans to award $50 million in funding to develop a functioning fusion reactor by the early 2030s. Last year, the private sector invested $2.5 billion to develop fusion technology; this year, the figure is expected to be $4.8 billion, a surge that anticipates results in the not-too-distant future.
Dr Nick Hawker, co-founder and CEO of UK-based First Light Fusion, which announced success with projectile fusion in April, welcomed word of the LLNL's inertial fusion success.
"If confirmed, this result is a watershed moment for inertial fusion as a power generation technology," said Hawker in a statement. "Target gain has long been the measure of success, the objective that shows the core physics has been cracked."
Hawker said it's long been known from underground tests that high-gain inertial fusion works. The LLNL result, he said, shows a clear, reduced risk path from established physics to power production.
Still, it may be a while before fusion matters to the general public.
"Before people get too excited about [the] nuclear fusion announcement, Q>1 (more energy out than in) was anticipated long ago," said Michael E. Mann, professor in the Department of Earth and Environmental Science at the University of Pennsylvania, said via Twitter.
"Economic viability probably requires Q~10. I'd be more excited about an announcement that [the] US is ending fossil fuel subsidies." ®
Updated to add
You can find our breakdown of the announcement here.