A team of scientists at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California have made a significant breakthrough in the quest to create nuclear fusion energy. In an experiment at the National Ignition Facility, they successfully produced more energy from a fusion reaction than was input into the experiment. This marks a major milestone in the decades-long pursuit of nuclear fusion, which has the potential to provide a nearly limitless source of clean energy.
Nuclear fusion is the process that powers the sun and other stars, and involves forcing light atoms together to release a large amount of energy. It is seen as the “holy grail” of energy production because it produces far more energy than traditional nuclear fission and only produces small amounts of short-lived radioactive waste. Importantly, the process also produces no greenhouse gas emissions and therefore does not contribute to climate change. However, achieving nuclear fusion has proven difficult due to the high temperatures and pressures required to force and keep the atoms together.
In the recent experiment, the scientists input 2.05 megajoules of energy into the reaction and produced 3.15 megajoules of fusion energy, exceeding the input energy. While this amount of energy is small, it represents a significant milestone and paves the way for further research. However, there is still a long way to go before fusion energy can be used to power homes. The experiment needs to be repeated and perfected, and the amount of energy produced must be significantly increased.
The experiment has already cost billions of dollars, and fusion energy is not cheap to produce. However, the promise of a clean energy source is a strong incentive for continuing to pursue this research. As LLNL director Dr. Kim Budil stated, “This is a historic achievement… over the past 60 years thousands of people have contributed to this endeavour and it took real vision to get us here.”