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A breakthrough for fusion energy? Watch live as American scientists make a big announcement

Researchers at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory may have achieved a remarkable new peak for fusion reactions, generating even more energy than was pumped in during a recent experiment, according to a report by the Financial Times.

The publication suggests that researchers “with knowledge of preliminary results from a recent experiment” have discussed the result and analysis is ongoing. A major announcement is scheduled to take place at LLNL on Tuesday, December 1[ads1]3. It is expected to be broadcast live by the Department of Energy approx. at 07.00 PT.

The National Ignition Facility is running an “inertial confinement fusion” experiment, which sees nearly 200 lasers fired directly at a small capsule of hydrogen. According to Nathan Garland, a physicist at Griffith University in Australia, the lasers create a plasma around the capsule that eventually starts an implosion – these conditions allow fusion reactions to take place.

Fusion is the reaction that powers our sun, and it works by smashing two atoms together. This requires extreme pressure and extreme heat, but trying to replicate the conditions in a lab is “super difficult,” Garland noted.

The energy released by fusing two atoms is massive and, importantly, does not release any carbon dioxide. Unlike fission – splitting atoms – used in nuclear power plants, fusion also leaves no radioactive waste, nor is there any risk of meltdown. In short, if we could harness fusion power, it would revolutionize energyso that we can generate clean power without pumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

If the FT report and social media chatter are correct, researchers at LLNL could have achieved “fusion energy gain” denoted by the letter Q. In a fusion experiment, if Q > 1, then we are headed for a bona fide energy breakthrough, one that scientists have long dreamed of reaching. “It’s a big deal, if it’s true,” Garland said.

However, as with all science, it is good to be cautious and not overhype results that have not yet been fully analyzed. After all, we’ve been here before. In 2013, there were reports that NIF had achieved exactly this feat. That was not the case.

In recent times, however, NIF has taken major steps towards achieving the goal. In August 2021, scientists reported that they had, for a brief moment, recreated the power of the sun in a self-sustaining reaction. That’s a good pedigree and one that makes us here at CNET Science feel a little more confident about the rumors.

An LLNL spokesperson told CNET “our analysis is still ongoing, so we cannot provide details or confirmation at this time” and provided a link to the media advisory — which in all caps suggests a “MAJOR SCIENTIFIC BREAKTHROUGH.”

The result does not mean that we suddenly have an endless supply of energy. It is likely that the reaction that took place at NIF lasted only a fraction of a second or even less. But this is the first step in a journey towards fusion energy as a viable, serious technology to power our world. It provides a proof of concept that fusion experiments like this can reach Q > 1.

So while I’m always careful to throw around the word “breakthrough” when reporting on cutting-edge science — especially in fusion energy — it feels like it might be justified here. We’ll have to wait and see.

Updated December 12: Changed sentence to “smash two atoms together” instead of “heavy” atoms because of course hydrogen is a very light atom.

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