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How Nuclear Fusion Works and Why the “Breakthrough” Matters for Green Energy

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  • Scientists produced a nuclear fusion reaction that created a net energy gain, preliminary results suggest.
  • The Department of Energy is expected to make an official announcement on the discovery on Tuesday.
  • Fusion power advocates say it’s a step toward clean, cheap, and nearly limitless electricity.

Scientists have reportedly made a “breakthrough” in their quest to harness nuclear fusion.

The US Department of Energy is expected to make an official announcement regarding the fusion energy research milestone on Tuesday, the Financial Times reported.

For the first time, researchers have created a nuclear fusion reaction that produced more energy than they put in, FT and The Washington Post reported.

The experiment, conducted over the past two weeks at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, generated 2.5 megajoules of energy, 120% more than the 2.1 megajoules needed to create it, FT reported, citing preliminary data.

“Scientifically, this is the first time they’ve shown it’s possible,” said Gianluca Sarri, a physicist at Queen’s University Belfast. “From theory they knew it should happen, but it was never seen experimentally in real life.”

What is fusion energy and why is it so important?

This illustration depicts a capsule with laser beams entering through openings at each end.  The beams compress and heat the target to the conditions necessary for nuclear fusion to occur.

This illustration shows how lasers heat a target to the conditions necessary for nuclear fusion to occur.

Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory



Nuclear fusion works by forcing two atoms – most often hydrogen – together to make a heavier one – like helium.

This explosive process releases massive amounts of energy, says the Department of Energy. Fusion is the opposite of fission, the reaction that powers nuclear reactors in commercial use today.

Fusion occurs naturally at the core of the sun and stars, providing fuel for these cosmic objects.

Since the 1950s, scientists have been trying to replicate it on Earth in order to harness what nuclear energy advocates suggest is clean, cheap, and nearly limitless electricity.

According to the International Atomic Energy Agency, fusion generates four times more energy per kilogram than fission used to power nuclear power plants, and nearly 4 million times more energy than burning oil or coal.

Also, unlike fossil fuels, fusion does not release carbon dioxide – the greenhouse gas that is the main driver of climate change – into the atmosphere. And unlike nuclear fission, fusion does not create long-lived radioactive waste, according to the Department of Energy.

A view of the Leningrad nuclear power plant, in Leningrad, Russia, September 14, 2022.

A view of the Leningrad nuclear power plant, in Leningrad, Russia, September 14, 2022.

Sezgin Pancar/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images



But so far, nuclear fusion has not solved our large-scale energy problems.

What Tuesday’s “breakthrough” announcement means for the future

Tuesday’s announcement is likely a huge step forward in nuclear fusion power, but commercial-scale application of the technology is likely still a long way off.

Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, a theoretical physicist, pointed out that the process used by the Department of Energy requires tritium, a rare and radioactive isotope of hydrogen.

“It can still provide important insights that are ultimately transformative. We don’t know that yet,” Prescod-Weinstein said. tweeted monday. “Being able to do this once a day with a laser does not mean that this mechanism will evolve at all!”

Investors including Amazon founder Jeff Bezos have poured billions into clean energy startups trying to make the merger commercially viable, and Tuesday’s announcement is expected to continue that trend.



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