As the world moves towards net-zero emissions, sustainable and affordable power sources are urgently needed by humanity.
As Visual Capitalist’s Bruno Venditti details below, one of the most promising technologies, fusion, has attracted the attention of governments and private companies like Chevron and Google.
In fact, Bloomberg Intelligence has estimated that the fusion market may eventually be valued at $40 trillion.
Producing energy through nuclear fusion has been a long-held ambition for scientists and energy experts, and has prominently featured in science fiction novels and movies.
The process involves fusing nuclei together, which throws off energy – which could then provide theoretically abundant energy on earth.
Scientists have for decades tried to use nuclear fusion to produce electricity at a usable scale, however replicating the reaction on Earth is highly challenging, requiring vast amounts of heat and pressure.
So far, they have not yet managed to produce more energy from the reaction than it takes to trigger the reaction.
But now, The FT reports, according to three people with knowledge of preliminary results from a recent experiment, US government scientists have made a breakthrough in the pursuit of limitless, zero-carbon power by achieving a net energy gain in a fusion reaction for the first time.
The federal Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, which uses a process called inertial confinement fusion that involves bombarding a tiny pellet of hydrogen plasma with the world’s biggest laser, had achieved net energy gain in a fusion experiment in the past two weeks, the people said.
Although many scientists believe fusion power stations are still decades away, the technology’s potential is hard to ignore.
Fusion reactions emit no carbon, produce no long-lived radioactive waste and a small cup of the hydrogen fuel could theoretically power a house for hundreds of years.
The fusion reaction at the US government facility produced about 2.5 megajoules of energy, which was about 120 per cent of the 2.1 megajoules of energy in the lasers, the people with knowledge of the results said, adding that the data was still being analyzed.
The US department of energy has said energy secretary Jennifer Granholm and under-secretary for nuclear security Jill Hruby will announce “a major scientific breakthrough” at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory on Tuesday.
“If this is confirmed, we are witnessing a moment of history,” said Dr Arthur Turrell, a plasma physicist whose book The Star Builders charts the effort to achieve fusion power.
“Scientists have struggled to show that fusion can release more energy than is put in since the 1950s, and the researchers at Lawrence Livermore seem to have finally and absolutely smashed this decades-old goal.”
Of course the big question is – will Greta be pleased?
With global energy demand expected to increase by 47% in the next 30 years, and renewables like wind and solar are intermittent and need a baseload source of clean energy to supplement them; fusion, when (not if) commercially implemented, could deliver clean, abundant, reliable, and cost-competitive energy.
A national lab just achieved a ‘Wright Brothers moment’ in nuclear fusion
The Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory announced a key achievement in fusion research on Tuesday. Fusion, the lesser known and opposite reaction to nuclear fission, is when two atoms slam together to form a heavier atom and release energy. It is the way the sun makes energy.
“Our result is a significant step forward in understanding what is required for it to work. To me, this is a Wright Brothers moment,” Omar A. Hurricane, Chief Scientist for the Inertial Confinement Fusion Program at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, told CNBC.
“It’s not practical, but we got off the ground for a moment,” Hurricane said.
The Livermore, Calif.-based lab announced on Tuesday it had, back on Aug. 8, been able to produce 1.3 megajoules of energy at its National Ignition Facility, albeit very briefly.
At the National Ignition Facility, which is the size of three football fields, super powerful laser beams recreate the temperatures and pressures similar to what exists in the cores of stars, giant planets and inside exploding nuclear weapons, a spokesperson tells CNBC.
On Aug. 8, a laser light was focused onto a target the size of a BB which resulted in “a hot-spot the diameter of a human hair, generating more than 10 quadrillion watts of fusion power for 100 trillionths of a second,” the written statement says.
What’s key is that the results make “a significant step toward ignition,” said a statement from the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.
“Ignition is a tipping-point in the fusion process where the fusion heats itself and overwhelms all the cooling losses that can occur,” Hurricane told CNBC. “Once this happens a feedback process is generated where heating creates more fusion, which creates more heating, which creates more fusion, and so on.”
Getting to the place where a fusion reaction makes more energy than it uses, ignition, is something of a holy grail for companies which are trying to commercialize fusion and sell it as a clean energy source.
Whether or not the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory experiment was able to do that — to generate “net energy” — is “complicated because the answer depends upon where one starts the accounting for the energy input,” Hurricane said.
A key milestone, but a long way to go for fusion
The news certainly represents progress, but it does not signal a sea change in how energy will be generated in the immediate future.
“The current experiment produces a large amount of power … but only for a very short time … and as yields increase, experiments like this will produce more power for longer durations, important steps on the road to commercial power production which would require net positive power production for long durations of time,” said Brett Rampal, the Director of Nuclear Innovation at the Clean Air Task Force, an energy policy think tank.
“There’s still a long way to go,” Rampal added.
Andrew Holland, the CEO of the Fusion Industry Association, is enthusiastic about Tuesday’s announcement.
“Proving ignition is the ‘Kitty Hawk Moment’ for fusion energy,” Holland told CNBC.
“It will prove that we can unleash fusion energy for power production on earth,” Holland says. “It will provide deep scientific understanding of how fusion works, and that will help all fusion developers better build their power plants.”
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