By Ari Natter and Will Wade | Bloomberg
Californian scientists have achieved a major breakthrough in nuclear fusion, a technology that has the potential to transform the global energy landscape.
Researchers at the US Department of Energy’s Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory near San Francisco were able to produce a fusion reaction that generated more energy than it consumed, according to a person familiar with the research who has requested anonymity to discuss the results which have not yet been fully disclosed. in public.
Fusion is the same process that powers stars, and this achievement is a major milestone that shows it may eventually be possible to harness the sun’s energy to create a commercial power plant on Earth. Although it’s still many years away, the technology offers the promise of abundant carbon-free electricity.
In the experiment, lasers were used to bombard hydrogen isotopes held in a superheated plasma state to fuse them into helium, releasing a neutron and carbon-free energy.
The breakthrough “could be a game-changer for the world,” said Rep. Ted Lieu, a California Democrat.
Scientists have been experimenting with this technology for decades, but testing typically requires huge amounts of energy. Generating a fusion reaction that produces more energy than it consumes – technically called net energy gain – has been elusive.
The reaction produced about 2.5 megajoules of energy compared to the 2.1 megajoules used to power the lasers, according to the Financial Times, which previously reported the results.
The technology has attracted billions in investment from backers such as Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates and Peter Thiel. In recent years it has also started to gain support from sovereign wealth funds, national development banks and venture capitalists, a sign that the industry is starting to look more seriously at the concept.
A Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory spokeswoman said the analysis is still ongoing and will share more details on Tuesday.
While the results represent a breakthrough, there’s still a long way to go to create viable technology, let alone provide enough clean energy to help wean the world off fossil fuels and limit climate change.
The technology is different from fission, which is now widely used in commercial nuclear power plants. Fission creates energy by splitting atoms, but also produces radioactive waste. It has been commercially available for decades and still produces only 10% of the world’s electricity, far less than coal and gas.
Fusion’s potential market share would also be challenged by solar and wind power, both of which are cheaper and have mature supply chains. Their main drawback – intermittent generation – is being solved by a rapidly growing battery storage industry.
Yet if fusion can be scaled up, it offers the promise of clean energy around the clock with less risk and hazardous waste than fission. Investments in fusion startups like Commonwealth Fusion Systems and Helion Energy jumped to $2.3 billion in 2021 and will likely total more than $1 billion this year, according to BloombergNEF.
The Energy Department previously said Secretary Jennifer Granholm planned on Tuesday to announce a “major science breakthrough” at the national lab by researchers from the agency’s National Nuclear Security Administration.
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