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Fusion energy gets its 'holy sh*t' moment

The National Ignition Facility at Lawrence Livermore Laboratory. The image shows the chamber where thousands of lasers are concentrated on a single point to test fusion reactions. A corridor ringed with laser tubes and metal opens to reveal an illuminated central point that glows like a star.
Image Credit: Flickr/National Nuclear Security Administration

Researchers at the U.S. National Ignition Facility in Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory are set to announce that they've produced more energy than a fusion reaction consumed.

That feat, known as a net energy gain, is the holy grail of fusion experimentation and a holy schnikes moment for the energy industry.

First reported by The Financial Times an announcement of the achievement could come as soon as this week.

"If this is confirmed, we are witnessing a moment of history,” said Dr Arthur Turrell, a plasma physicist from the Imperial College of London who wrote a book on the quest for fusion energy, told the FT. “Scientists have struggled to show that fusion can release more energy than is put in since the 1950s, and the researchers at Lawrence Livermore seem to have finally and absolutely smashed this decades-old goal.”

Since the 1950s, physicists have looked to generate energy using a fusion reaction -- the same energy source that powers the sun. But until now no one has been able to produce more energy from the fusion reaction than it consumes.

Showing net energy gain would go a long way toward proving that fusion can provide the alternative to fossil fuels and other types of waste-producing energy generation (ahem hem nuclear fission).

The NIF has announced a stream of firsts over the last few years which indicated an accelerating pace of fusion innovation.

There are two main types of fusion reactors, magnetic confinement fusion and inertial confinement fusion, which is what the National Ignition Facility is developing. Magnetic confinement fusion uses powerful magnets to create a stable fusion reaction. Meanwhile, in inertial confinement, small amounts of fuel (about the size of the head of a pin) are superheated to create fusion in short bursts.

At the National Ignition Facility, incredibly powerful lasers are shot at a just such a target. The laser beams heat up the outer layer of the pellet, which explodes creating a reaction force that compresses the fuel.

The force of the explosion -- with atoms moving at more than 400 kilometers per second—allows the fusion reactions to take place before the fuel can disassemble; so the fuel is confined (or trapped) by its own inertia (hence, inertial confinement fusion).

Governments and private investors have spent tens of billions (if not hundreds of billions) of dollars to perfect the technology for one reason. If scientists can unlock the potential of fusion power, it would mean a zero-emission reliable source of power that could replace fossil fuels globally.

Through the recently passed CHIPS and Science Act the Biden administration and Congress agreed to funnel at least $6 billion into fusion energy research -- including the creation of two national teams which will receive hundreds of millions of dollars to develop pilot plants.

That money comes on top of the $370 billion in subsidies that the Biden administration is providing for low-carbon energy through the Inflation Reduction Act.

At the U.S. national laboratory, the 2.5 mega joules of energy produced exceeded the 2.1 mega joules of energy in the laser by 120 percent. It's a technical milestone but a major one.

“Initial diagnostic data suggests another successful experiment at the National Ignition Facility. However, the exact yield is still being determined and we can’t confirm that it is over the threshold at this time,” a spokesperson for the facility told The Financial Times. “That analysis is in process, so publishing the information . . . before that process is complete would be inaccurate.”

Two people who spoke with the FT said that the resulting energy output was more powerful than expected and (in a twist that wouldn't be out of place in any Marvel movie) broke the diagnostic equipment.

“There is going to be great pride that this is something that happened in the United States,” David Edelman, who leads policy and global affairs at TAE, a large private fusion energy company, told The Washington Post. “This is a very important milestone on the road toward fusion energy.”

While the National Ignition Facility breakthrough is incredibly significant, developers working on the competing magnetic confinement fusion reaction have noted that commercialization could still be an issue.

To generate significant amounts of energy, a commercial plant using the inertial confinement approach would have to feed fuel to ignite at an incredibly rapid clip and dramatically reduce the cost of its fuel source.

"This is not an approach that can be scaled and replicated to produce high average power that is needed for commercially viable fusion energy systems," said one person with knowledge of the industry. "With that said, the science that they do is legitimate, and so any accomplishment they achieve that proves feasibility or experimental validation is really great for the field of fusion."

Investors backing new technology companies (including FootPrint Coalition) have put billions of dollars into startups developing either magnetic confinement, inertial confinement, or other -- more theoretical -- processes to generate fusion energy.

These are businesses like the Oxford-based First Light Fusion, Seattle's Helion Energy, Commonwealth Fusion Systems (which is backed by FootPrint Coalition), General Fusion, TAE Technologies and a host of others.

“Fusion has the potential to lift more citizens of the world out of poverty than anything since the invention of fire," Congressman Don Beyer, chair of the bipartisan fusion energy caucus, said at an announcement of government funding earlier this year.

Given the breakthrough that was just achieved, that potential is now closer than ever.

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