We now have a genuine fusion energy breakthrough

Researchers at the National Ignition Facility in Livermore, California, home of the world’s most powerful laser, announced on Tuesday that they crossed the critical threshold in their pursuit of fusion power: getting more energy out of the reaction than they put in.

This is 1) a massive scientific advancement, and 2) still a long, long (long) way off from harnessing fusion, the reaction that powers the sun, as a viable source of abundant clean energy. On December 5, the team fired 192 laser beams at a tiny fuel pellet, producing slightly more energy than the lasers put in, “about 2 megajoules in, about 3 megajoules out,” said Marvin Adamsdeputy administrator for defense programs at the National Nuclear Security Administration, at a press conference Tuesday.

To make fusion something that could actually produce electricity for the power grid, it can’t just inch over the ignition finish line; it has to blow past it. This announcement is an important incremental advance, but the breakthrough doesn’t go far enough to be of practical use. Because NIF itself is a research laboratory, its technology is not intended to produce power. So designing a fusion reactor to harness this new approach will be its own engineering challenge.

NIF is part of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, operated by the US Department of Energy. “This is what it looks like for America to lead, and we’re just getting started,” Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm said on Tuesday.

The Financial Times first revealed on Sunday that a fusion breakthrough announcement was imminent.

Nuclear fusion refers to the reaction where the nuclei of tiny atoms like hydrogen and helium collide and stick together, generating enormous heat, which could, in theory, be used to make electricity. That’s in contrast to the fission reaction used in conventional nuclear power plants , where large atoms like uranium are split apart. The trouble for fusion is that the nuclei are positively charged and thus repel each other. To get them to overcome their opposition, you have to get them moving really, really fast in a confined space and Create a high-energy state of matter known as plasma.

Scientists have struggled for decades to do this. There are two main approaches: One is to compress a tiny pellet of fuel with powerful lasers, which is NIF’s strategy. The other is to heat up plasma to temperatures hotter than the sun and contain it with magnets. This is how ITERthe world’s largest fusion project, currently under construction in southern France, will generate the reaction.

The sun and other stars can pull this off because they have enough matter to generate enormous gravity, which accelerates and confines atoms to create fusion reactions that produce the light and heat we can experience from millions of miles away.

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