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Breakthrough in nuclear fusion energy announced

Updated: May 2, 2023

A significant step toward the promise of "near-limitless" clean energy has been made by the United States with the announcement of a nuclear fusion breakthrough.

Alongside researchers from the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm stated on Tuesday in Washington, DC, "It will go down in the history books."

Numerous scientists and engineers have been working on replicating the atomic fusion energy process that powers the sun and other stars for the past 70 years.

Due to the high temperatures and pressures required, the process is extremely complex, expensive, and unstable.

The California lab team has now produced a "net energy gain," or more energy in a fusion reaction than was required to ignite it, for the first time.

While praising the development, scientists cautioned that decades more work remained before fusion will be used to power our daily life.

Although the planet-heating emissions produced by burning fossil fuels are what are driving the climate problem, the fusion technology breakthrough has the potential to have a huge impact on the trajectory of the crisis.

How long before we're using this process to create energy?

Inevitably, the question is asked as to how long the assembled scientists believe it will be before the process is "commercialised" - ie, creating energy that we can use. Jennifer Granholm starts us off, saying: "A while."

Analysis: A scientific milestone - but lasers require huge amounts of power

Just now, Dr Marv Adams was holding up the cylindrical target containing the “peppercorn-sized” pellet of fusion fuel.

He confirmed they had achieved “ignition” of a fusion reaction.

He also revealed the scientists put about 2MJ of energy into their fusion reaction and got about 3MJ out.

That’s the evidence of the “energy gain” that this announcement is all about.

That’s the significant scientific milestone: proving a fusion reaction itself can generate more energy than you put into in.

But they had to use 300MJ of electricity to power up their lasers.

So from an energy production point of view, they're still having to put in 90% more power into the machine as a whole as they are getting out.

'An important day in science'

It's been revealed that the breakthrough happened last Monday.

Jill Hruby, under secretary for nuclear security and National Nuclear Security Administration administrator, said it would go down as "an important day in science". That's probably putting it mildly!

The development has been tipped to accelerate the move to renewable energy in the years ahead.

She does note that the breakthrough marks "the first tentative steps towards a clean energy source that could revolutionise the world".

That's more like it!

The amount of energy they've generated in this experiment is tiny - just enough to boil a few kettles. But what it represents is huge for the scientists who've spent so long working on this technology - and for all of us.

The promise of a fusion-powered future is one step closer. But - and there always is a but with these breakthroughs - there's still a long way to go before this becomes a reality.

This experiment shows that the science works. Now it needs to be repeated, perfected, and the amount of energy it generates will have to be significantly boosted.

This is before scientists can even think about scaling the process up.

The other issue is the cost - this experiment has cost billions of dollars - fusion does not come cheap.

But the promise of a source of clean energy will certainly be a big incentive for overcoming these challenges.


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