The Department of Energy announced Tuesday that US scientists have made a “scientific breakthrough” in the decades-long quest to harness nuclear fusion, for the first time, to produce a reaction capable of generating energy gain.
For the first time, researchers at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) in California produced more energy in a fusion reaction than was used to ignite it, something called the net energy gain, the Energy Department said.
Secretary Jennifer Granholm, who appeared with the Livermore researchers at a conference from Washington DC, announced what could lead to unlimited, cheap and clean energy production in the future.
“This is a historic achievement for researchers… who have dedicated their careers to making fusion ignition a reality, and this milestone will undoubtedly lead to even more discoveries,” the official said. This “will lead to advances in national defense and the future of clean energy.
The announcement marks a milestone in reproducing the power of the sun in a laboratory, as scientists have said for decades that fusion, the nuclear reaction that occurs in stars, could be a vital energy source for the future.
A milestone in power generation
LLNL Director Kim Budil described it as “one of the most important scientific challenges ever tackled by humanity.” The result announced Tuesday is the first fusion reaction in a laboratory that produced more energy than it took to generate it.
The LLNL said that a team conducted the first controlled fusion experiment in history on December 5.
Those who consider the nuclear fusion process to be the ‘holy grail’ of energy production hope that it may one day displace fossil fuels and other traditional energy sources.
Power like this that can reach homes from fusion is still decades away. The experts at the press conference on Tuesday indicated that they cannot give precisions on how long it would take to carry this type of energy production on a large scale.
“We should be pushing to make fusion power systems available to address climate change and energy security,” said Professor Dennis Whyte of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a leader in fusion research.
How does the merge work?
Nuclear power plants around the world currently use fission, the splitting of the nucleus of a heavy atom, to produce power. Fusion, on the other hand, combines two lightweight hydrogen atoms to form one heavier helium atom, releasing a large amount of energy in the process. That’s the process that goes on inside stars, including our sun.
Nuclear fusion is achieved by pressing hydrogen atoms together with such force that they combine into helium, releasing enormous amounts of energy and heat. Unlike other nuclear reactions, it does not generate radioactive waste.
The net energy gain has been an elusive goal because fusion occurs at such high temperatures and pressures that it is very difficult to control.
But fusion is a clean source of energy, free of greenhouse gases like those produced by fossil fuels or the dangerous radioactive waste from today’s nuclear plants that use uranium.
Billions of dollars and decades of work have gone into fusion research. Previously, Lawrence Livermore researchers used 192 lasers and temperatures several times hotter than the center of the sun to create an extremely brief fusion reaction.
Lasers concentrate an enormous amount of heat into a small metal can. The result is a superheated plasma environment where fusion can occur.