US scientists have reportedly conducted the first nuclear fusion experiment to achieve a net energy gain, a major breakthrough in a field that has pursued such an outcome since the 1950s, and a potential milestone in the search for a climate-friendly, renewable energy source to replace fossil fuels fuel.
The experiment took place in recent weeks at the state-funded Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, where researchers used a process known as inertial confinement fusion, Financial Times reports, citing three people with knowledge of the experiment̵[ads1]7;s preliminary results.
The test involved bombarding a pellet of hydrogen plasma with the world’s largest laser to trigger a nuclear fusion reaction, the same process that takes place in the sun.
Scientists were able to produce 2.5 megajoules of energy, 120 percent of the 2.1 megajoules used to power the experiment.
The laboratory confirmed opposite FT it had recently conducted a “successful” experiment at the National Ignition Facility, but declined to comment further, citing the preliminary nature of the data.
“Initial diagnostic data suggests another successful experiment at the National Ignition Facility. However, the exact yield is still being determined and we cannot confirm that it is above the threshold at this time,” it said. “This analysis is ongoing, so publication of the information . . . until that process is complete, it would be inaccurate.”
The scientific community is alarmed that a net gain fusion reaction has taken place, noting that US Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm and US Under Secretary for Nuclear Security Jill Hruby will make an announcement from the national laboratory this coming Tuesday.
Many commentators celebrated the reported fusion breakthrough.
“Scientists have been fighting to show that fusion can release more energy than is put in since the 1950s, and scientists at Lawrence Livermore appear to have finally and absolutely crushed this decades-old goal,” Arthur Turrell, Deputy Director of the UK Office for National Statistics, wrote on Twitter Sunday. “This experimental result will electrify efforts to eventually power the planet with nuclear fusion—at a time when we’ve never needed an abundant source of carbon-free energy more!”
Oliver Cameron, an executive at self-driving car company Cruise, predicted that with the news from Livermore, the world could be entering a futuristic era of widespread nuclear fusion power and broadly capable artificial general intelligence (AGI).
“It is increasingly likely that we will end this decade with both AGI and viable nuclear fusion,” wrote on Twitter Sunday.
In April, the White House announced a series of initiatives intended to support the development of the fusion industry.
“Fusion is one of a much larger series of clean energy game-changers [are] in relation to the scale that the climate challenge requires,” Alondra Nelson, head of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, so at the time in a statement. “Now is the time for bold innovation to accelerate fusion energy.”
The Biden administration also helped secure $370 billion in subsidies for low-carbon energy development as part of the 2022 Inflation Reduction Act.
Scientists and environmentalists still disagree about the green potential of nuclear fusion.
Proponents argue that fusion is much safer than nuclear fission, the process that powers all existing nuclear power plants (and nuclear weapons). They say that if commercial reactors were regularly able to achieve net energy gains, and were powered by renewable energy, fusion could be the energy source that finally weans the world from its dangerous dependence on fossil fuels.
“For my generation, it was fear of weapons that influenced people’s view of nuclear power. In this generation, it’s climate change,” Todd Allen, a professor of nuclear engineering at the University of Michigan and director of the school’s Fastest Path to Zero Climate Center, told The independent earlier this year. “Ultimately, I don’t know if these are the technologies that catch fire or not. It’s just interesting to me because they’re the first demos of new ideas in half a century. I think there’s a lot of interest and potential.”
Others, however, argue that nuclear fusion has a long history of over-promising and under-delivering, despite massive capital expenditure, a slow pace of development that the world cannot afford given the dwindling time available to avert the worst climate crisis.
“We have never been in principle against any technology, but it is very clear, every time you start to count, that the moment you introduce nuclear power, costs increase and the rate of change decreases,” Jan Haverkamp, an energy expert at Greenpeace, told The independent in January. “That is exactly what we cannot afford now as climate change becomes ever more real. If you start talking about nuclear power at this moment, you are either following a fad or trying to divert attention from what really needs to be done.”
Yet, despite this debate, billions of dollars are pouring into private nuclear startups, which the Bill Gates-backed TerraPoweras well as government efforts which ITERa 23,000-ton, $22 billion, 35-nation nuclear experiment under construction in France.