Huge amounts of public and private funding have been poured into the fusion race worldwide, with the goal of eventually producing fusion machinery that can bring electricity to the grid with no carbon footprint, no radioactive waste, and far fewer resources than it takes to harness solar and wind power. Beyond the climate benefits, promoters say it could help bring cheap electricity to poor parts of the world.
“For most of us, this was just a matter of time,” said a senior fusion scientist familiar with the work of the National Ignition Facility at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, where the discovery was made.
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The development was first reported by the Financial Times on Sunday. It was confirmed by two people in the know with the research, who spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid get ahead of the official announcement. Energy Minister Jennifer Granholm was to make the announcement on Tuesday at a media event billed as the unveiling of “a major scientific breakthrough”.
The department and the laboratory declined to comment. A lab official said researchers there are still finalizing their analysis and won’t release any official findings until Tuesday.
The science of nuclear fusion relies on smashing two atoms together at incredibly high speeds and transforming the energy from that reaction into electricity that can power homes and offices without releasing carbon into the air or dumping radioactive waste into the environment.
In the decades scientists have been experimenting with fusion reactions, they had not until now been able to create one that produces more energy than it consumes. Although the achievement is significant, there are still monumental technical and scientific challenges ahead.
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Creating the net energy gain required the commitment of one of the largest lasers in the world, and the resources needed to recreate the reaction on the scale required to make fusion practical for energy production are enormous. More importantly, engineers have yet to develop machinery capable of reasonably turning that reaction into electricity that can be practically distributed to the power grid.
Building devices large enough to create fusion power on a large scale, researchers say, will require materials that are extraordinarily difficult to manufacture. At the same time, the reaction creates neutrons that put an enormous strain on the equipment making it, so that it can be destroyed in the process.
And then there is the question of whether the technology can be perfected in time to intervene in climate change.
Still, researchers and investors in fusion technology hailed the breakthrough as an important advance.
“There’s going to be a lot of pride that this is something that happened in the United States,” said David Edelman, who heads policy and global affairs at TAE, a large private fusion energy company. “This is a very important milestone on the road to fusion energy.”
It comes as the Biden administration prioritizes fusion energy research in its climate and energy agenda. The projects are among the front lines for tens of billions of dollars in subsidies and grants approved through the major climate package Biden signed during the summer, called the Inflation Reduction Act.
Over the past few decades, the United States, Russia, and various European nations have allocated billions in government dollars to try to master the science, believing that if they could, it would be a boon to the world.