Scientists for the first time have produced more energy in a fusion reaction than was used to kickstart it in a “major scientific breakthrough,” the Department of Energy announced on Tuesday.
Researchers at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California on Dec. 5 performed the first controlled fusion experiment to reach the milestone known as “scientific energy breakeven.”
“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,” laboratory Director Kim Budil said in a statement.
The experiment produced 3.15 megajoules of fusion energy output, exceeding the 2.05 megajoules used to drive it.
The DOE said that the achievement will promote further discoveries in “clean power and nuclear weapons stewardship” and would be a “game-changer for efforts to achieve President Biden’s goal of a net-zero carbon economy.”
“The Biden-Harris Administration is committed to supporting our world-class scientists – like the team at [LLNL’s National Ignition Facility] – whose work will help us solve humanity’s most complex and pressing problems, like providing clean power to combat climate change and maintaining a nuclear deterrent without nuclear testing.” Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm said in a statement.
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Nuclear fusion technology generates energy through smashing two or more atoms together. It’s the same reaction that powers the sun and the stars. It’s different from nuclear fission, which is used in nuclear power plants and divides atoms to release heat and radiation.
The technology is still a long way from being cheaply reproduced at a large scale, as it needs to be self-sustaining on a continuous basis as opposed to brief spurts.
Budil said that there are “significant hurdles” to overcome before nuclear fusion technology can be commercialized.
“I think it’s moving into the foreground,” she said of the commercialization timeline. “Probably with concerted effort and investment, a few decades of research on the underlying technologies could put us in a position to build a power plant.”