Scientists at Livermore Lab Make Major Fusion Energy Breakthrough
WASHINGTON — Scientists studying fusion energy at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California have achieved a major milestone — creating the first fusion reaction in a laboratory that actually produced more energy than it took to start the reaction.
Decades in the making, the achievement — essentially reproducing the power of the sun in a laboratory — could be a gamechanger in the future of clean power.
The big event occurred on Dec. 5, when a team at the laboratory’s National Ignition Facility in Livermore, California, conducted the first controlled fusion experiment in history to achieve “scientific energy breakeven,” the technical phrase for producing more energy from fusion than the laser energy used to drive it.
To pursue this concept, researchers at the lab have spent decades building a series of increasingly more powerful laser systems, leading to the creation of the NIF, the world’s largest and most energetic laser system.
The size of a sports stadium, the facility uses powerful laser beams to create temperatures and pressures like those in the core of stars and giant planets, and inside exploding nuclear weapons.
Last week’s experiment surpassed the fusion threshold by delivering 2.05 megajoules 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.
“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 Energy Secretary Jennifer M. Granholm at a press conference Tuesday morning.
“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,” she said.
Dr. Arati Prabhakar, President Biden’s chief adviser for Science and Technology and director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, noted Tuesday that scientists have had a “theoretical understanding of fusion for more than a century.”
“But the journey from knowing to doing can be long and arduous,” Prabhakar said. “Today’s milestone shows what we can do with perseverance.”
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 the Lawrence Livermore lab theorized that lasers could be used to induce fusion in a laboratory setting.
Led by physicist John Nuckolls, who later served as the laboratory’s director from 1988 to 1994, researchers at the facility worked for more than 60 years developing the lasers, optics, diagnostics, target fabrication, computer modeling and simulation and experimental design needed to achieve their milestone.
On Tuesday, Granholm and other officials participating in the press conference cautioned that several more scientific and technological developments need to occur before the latest breakthrough can be commercialized and power homes and businesses.
“It could take decades,” said Kim Budil, director of the LLNL.
“There are very significant hurdles associated with the breakthrough’s advancement to everyday use,” Budil said.
But when it is, it will lead to a new generation of virtually carbon-free electricity without the amounts of radioactive nuclear waste produced by today’s fission reactors.
“This is a very big deal,” said Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., whose district encompasses much of Silicon Valley.
“This significant advancement showcases the future possibilities for the commercialization of fusion energy,” she said. “Congress and the administration need to fully fund and properly implement the fusion research provisions in the recent CHIPS and Science Act and likely more.
“During World War II, we crafted the Manhattan Project for a timely result. The challenges facing the world today are even greater than at that time. We must double down and accelerate the research to explore new pathways for the clean, limitless energy that fusion promises,” Lofgren said.
“This astonishing scientific advance puts us on the precipice of a future no longer reliant on fossil fuels but instead powered by new clean fusion energy,” said Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., in a written statement.
“I commend Lawrence Livermore National Labs and its partners in our nation’s Inertial Confinement Fusion program, including the University of Rochester’s Lab for Laser Energetics in New York, for achieving this breakthrough.
“Making this future clean energy world a reality will require our physicists, innovative workers and brightest minds at our DOE-funded institutions to double down on their cutting-edge work,” he said.
Schumer noted that over $634 million intended to support the ongoing work at the NIF has been included in the National Defense Authorization Act, which was passed by the House last week, but still awaits passage in the Senate.
He called it the “highest-ever authorization” for the program, and said it will “build on this amazing breakthrough.”
“Today’s announcement shows the world that fusion is not science fiction: it will soon be a viable source of energy,” said Andrew Holland, CEO of the Fusion Industry Association in a written statement. “There are still many steps between these experimental results and fusion power plants, but this is an important milestone for fusion.
“This will give governments around the world further incentive to support the development of commercial fusion energy,” Holland continued.
“It also shows that now is the time to establish regulatory regimes which both protect the public and encourage innovation. The FIA and our member companies will continue to meet milestones and drive rapid increases in fusion investment, while supporting efforts to increase interest from governments around the world.”