The U.S. Department of Energy (DoE) announced the groundbreaking development of fusion ignition, a scientific breakthrough that paves the way for applications in national defense, as well as nearly clean energy.
Nuclear fusion, the process that powers the sun, creates energy by joining two or more lighter atoms into a large one, and produces no long-lived radioactive waste. This process is the opposite of nuclear fission — used in nuclear power plants — where a larger atom is split into smaller ones.
The term “ignition” refers to a nuclear reaction where more energy is produced than consumed. Researchers have been trying for roughly a half century to achieve nuclear fusion. This latest development by scientists at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) paves the way for a future of nearly limitless clean power.
“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 U.S. Secretary of Energy Jennifer M. Granholm in a press release.
Until now, many scientists have tried to create nuclear fusion using a tokamak, which is a “doughnut-shaped vacuum chamber that uses powerful magnets to turn fuel into a superheated plasma (between 150 million and 300 million degrees Celsius) where fusion may occur,” according to the Associated Press (AP).
The LLNL uses a different technique, where researchers fire a 192-beam laser at a small capsule filled with deuterium-tritium fuel, the AP says.
“The pursuit of fusion ignition in the laboratory is one of the most significant scientific challenges ever tackled by humanity, and achieving it is a triumph of science, engineering, and most of all, people,” LLNL Director Dr. Kim Budil said in the Department of Energy statement. “Crossing this threshold is the vision that has driven 60 years of dedicated pursuit—a continual process of learning, building, expanding knowledge and capability, and then finding ways to overcome the new challenges that emerged. These are the problems that the U.S. national laboratories were created to solve.”
While applauding this latest breakthrough, some scientists say it could still take decades to develop the commercial applications needed to harness nuclear fusion power and displace fossil fuels.
“We have to take a positive but skeptical approach,” Andrew Sowder, a senior technical executive at the independent, non-profit EPRI, formerly known as Electric Power Research Institute, told Bloomberg. “You are going to have to demonstrate you can take the energy and turn it into something useful.”
Todd Allen, a professor of nuclear engineering at the University of Michigan, told Forbes that it will take “a couple of decades” for this technology to power homes and vehicles, as there are “some major challenges” to be tackled, like keeping the reaction going for long periods of time and making sure the technology is affordable.
But, eventually, nuclear fusion offers a nearly limitless supply of energy, which Troy Carter, a plasma physicist at the University of California, Los Angeles, says could “provide enough energy for the globe for many hundreds of thousands of years if not millions of years,” according to Forbes.