WASHINGTON, Dec 12 (Reuters) – The U.S. Energy Department will announce on Tuesday that scientists at a national laboratory have made a breakthrough in fusion, the process that powers the sun and stars that could one day provide a cheap source of electricity, three sources with knowledge of the matter said about the matter.
The researchers at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California have achieved a net energy gain for the first time in a laser fusion experiment, one of the people said.
While the results are a milestone in a scientific quest that has been developing since at least the 1930s, the ratio of energy going into the reaction at Livermore to getting energy out of it must be about 100 times larger to create a process that produces commercial amounts of electricity, said one of the sources.
The FT first reported on the experiment.
Fusion works when the nuclei of two atoms are exposed to extreme heat of 100 million degrees Celsius (180 million Fahrenheit) or higher causing them to fuse into a new larger atom, releasing enormous amounts of energy.
But the process uses enormous amounts of energy, and the trick has been to make the process self-sustaining and to get more energy out than goes in and to do it continuously rather than in short moments.
If fusion is commercialized, which supporters say could happen within a decade or more, it would have additional benefits, including the generation of virtually carbon-free electricity that could help fight climate change without the quantities of radioactive nuclear waste produced by today’s fission reactors.
However, running a non-fusion electric power plant presents tough obstacles, such as how to keep the heat economical and keep lasers running consistently. Other methods of fusion use magnets instead of lasers.
Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm is scheduled to hold a media briefing Tuesday at 10:00 a.m. EST (1500 GMT) on a “major scientific breakthrough.”
The department has no information ahead of the briefing, a spokesperson said.
Lawrence Livermore focuses mainly on national security issues related to nuclear weapons, and the fusion experiment could lead to safer testing of the nation’s arsenal of such bombs.
But progress at the labs could also help the efforts of companies hoping to develop power plants fueled by fusion, including Commonwealth Fusion Systems, Focused Energy and General Fusion.
Investors including Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos and John Doerr have poured money into companies building fusion. Private industry secured more than $2.8 billion last year, according to the Fusion Industry Association for a total of about $5 billion in recent years.
Reporting by Timothy Gardner; Editing by Philippa Fletcher, Marguerita Choy and Richard Chang
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