Scientists achieve historic fusion ‘ignition’ to produce ‘near-limitless’ clean energy
For 70 years, hundreds of scientists and engineers have attempted to replicate the energy process of atoms fusing together that powers the sun and other stars.
It is an enormously complex – and expensive – process which is highly unstable due to the high temperatures and pressures involved.
Now, for the first time, the California lab team used lasers to achieve a “net energy gain”, producing more energy in a fusion reaction than was used to ignite it.
Scientists heralded the breakthrough but said there were still decades of work to be done before fusion would be powering our everyday lives.
Nevertheless, the fusion breakthrough has the potential to significantly impact the trajectory of the climate crisis – driven by the planet-heating emissions created by burning fossil fuels.
‘We had some rocky times’: Member of Congress fought efforts to defund National Ignition Facility
California Representative Zoe Lofgren worked against attempts to defund the National Ignition Facility.
“We had some rocky times,” she told The Washington Post. “To see they have achieved ignition is fabulous. It is a profound breakthrough that brings an enticing promise that we could produce a nonpolluting, basically limitless source of energy.”
Commercial fusion energy had been attempted for some time as results in national labs have disappointed some and amid the possibility that funding for experiments may dry up.
Gustaf Kilander13 December 2022 23:25
VIDEO: Laboratory shares footage outlining experiment process
Gustaf Kilander13 December 2022 22:40
The risk posed by unguarded optimism about unlimited free energy
The risk posed by unguarded optimism about the prospect of unlimited free energy is that it could undo the small steps that have already been taken to decarbonise the energy sector and other industries that have largely depended on fossil fuels.
Just as polluting industries are already factoring in scarcely adequate carbon capture technology in pursuit of their own net zero targets, fusion must not be treated as a climate crisis “get out of jail free” card.
The technology cannot be ready within the time window required to meet the climate targets governments are already failing to meet. Our society’s priority must remain the rapid curtailment of greenhouse gas emissions.
It may not be as sexy, but a combination of energy efficiency, insulation, heat pumps and a broader rollout of renewables remains our best shot for tackling the climate crisis and building greater energy security.
Harry Cockburn13 December 2022 22:10
Laser used in experiment housed in football stadium complex
The laser needed to create the required reaction was so large that it was housed in a football stadium complex, The Washington Post noted.
It was built after the project ran over budget and faced years of delays.
Producing electricity from fusion would need the reaction, referred to as “ignition,” to take place every second of the day, the paper reported.
Reaching that point would require engineering on a massive scale. Merely creating a small amount of energy gain puts so much pressure on the expensive equipment that it at times breaks.
Gustaf Kilander13 December 2022 21:40
‘Success, however long it takes, would be transformational’
The long-held promise of nuclear fusion is that it could provide energy in such abundance that it would effectively replace all other forms of power, bringing free, unlimited energy to people around the world, revolutionising our societies, and helping to bring the emissions driving the climate crisis to heel.
Scientists are now cautiously optimistic that we could be witnessing a major breakthrough with the potential to radically alter the energy landscape.
Professor Sir Robin Grimes, of Imperial College London, said on Monday: “This is a key step on a possible pathway to commercial fusion. It demonstrates and underpins our basic understanding of the physics, and is an engineering triumph.
“Nevertheless, extracting this energy in a way that it can be harnessed, and developing the materials that can stand up to continuous operation, are massive challenges. There is no doubt, the prize is worth the effort. Success, however long it takes, would be transformational.”
Harry Cockburn13 December 2022 21:10
‘300 megajoules at the wall, two megajoules at the laser’
The Department of Energy declared the 5 December nuclear fusion energy as a success because when the hundreds of lasers struck the cylinder holding a small amount of hydrogen, 2.05 megajoules were shot at the target and 3.15 megajoules of energy came out.
But that didn’t factor in the energy that was required to create the lasers themselves – so-called wall-socket energy, The Washington Post noted.
The director of the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory, Kim Budil, said at the press conference on Tuesday that there were “300 megajoules at the wall, two megajoules at the laser”.
Gustaf Kilander13 December 2022 20:40
PHOTOS: Scientists reveal new discovery at Department of Energy press briefing
Gustaf Kilander13 December 2022 20:10
Scientists achieve energy gain in lab experiments
Fusion has always been a strong alternative when concerned about the impact on the climate of emissions from other energy sources.
Fusion combines hydrogen atoms into helium within the sun and the stars, which leads to sunlight and warmth heating the planets.
The process has been proven to be a clean source of energy in lab experiments, unlike fossil fuels, and nuclear energy which leaves behind radioactive waste.
But until now, scientists have been unable to retain more energy from the reactions than they used.
At 1.03am on 5 December, scientists used 192 lasers to blast a cylinder holding a small amount of hydrogen, creating three megajoules of energy while only putting in 2.05 megajoules, The New York Times reported.
Gustaf Kilander13 December 2022 19:40
VIDEO: ‘This is one of the most impressive scientific feats of the 21st century,’ energy secretary says
Gustaf Kilander13 December 2022 19:15
Experiment simulated ‘the conditions of a star’
Jill Hruby, the under-secretary for nuclear security, said that the US has taken “the first tentative steps towards a clean energy source that could revolutionize the world”.
The experiment included “192 high-energy lasers” being aimed at “a target about the size of a peppercorn, heating a capsule of deuterium and tritium to over three million degrees Celsius and briefly simulating the conditions of a star and achieving ignition”.
Arati Prabhakar, the Biden science advisor, said that researchers “shot a bunch of lasers at a pellet of fuel and more energy was released from that fusion ignition than the energy of the lasers”.
Gustaf Kilander13 December 2022 18:50