The U.S. Department of Energy on Tuesday announced a breakthrough in ongoing research for nuclear fusion, long heralded for its potential as a source of essentially limitless zero-emissions energy.
Federally funded scientists with the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California have, for the first time, produced more energy than was consumed in a fusion reaction. On Dec. 5, the team conducted the first controlled-fusion experiment in history to achieve fusion ignition.
“This breakthrough will change the future of clean power and America’s national defense forever,” the department said in a tweet alongside its live announcement of the breakthrough, which was first reported on over the weekend.
Nuclear fusion is the process of fusing two or more atoms into one larger one, a process that unleashes potentially usable energy as heat, in much the same way as the sun heats the Earth. The nuclear power used today is created by a different process, called fission, which harnesses the energy produced by splitting atoms but also produces radioactive waste that must be safely contained.
Nuclear plants using fission produce about 10% of the world’s electricity, and their proponents have pushed for expansion of traditional nuclear energy as a key part of a diverse portfolio of alternative energy sources.
Nuclear fusion, if it can be produced at scale, has long been considered the holy grail in the push to provide clean energy and slow the global warming that is intensifying natural disasters, acidifying oceans and causing extreme heat and drought. The basic elements are easily accessible — some of what’s needed can be extracted from seawater.
The U.S. and much of the rest of the developed world have been promoting a combination of solar, wind
hydrogen and traditional nuclear energy to replace the coal, oil
and natural gas
that send atmosphere-warming emissions into the air. Many nations, including the U.S., have said their economies must cut emissions by half by as soon as 2030 and achieve net-zero emissions by 2050.
The Financial Times first reported the Livermore fusion developments on Sunday.
“The recent experiment is a first-of-its-kind feat that could lead to an effective process for producing a zero-carbon alternative to fossil fuels and [traditional] nuclear energy,” said Frank Maisano, senior principal focused on energy with the Policy Resolution Group in Washington.
Daniel Kammen, a professor of energy and society at the University of California at Berkeley, told the Associated Press that nuclear fusion offers the possibility of “basically unlimited” fuel, but that the technology must first be made commercially viable.
The Livermore lab isn’t the only effort working toward a fusion breakthrough, which scientists have been pursuing for decades.
In Europe earlier this year, a large doughnut-shaped machine known as a tokamak, developed by scientists working in the English village of Culham, near Oxford, generated a record-breaking 59 megajoules of sustained nuclear fusion energy over five seconds, the scientists reported. That more than doubled the previous time record for generating and sustaining fusion.
While scientists have generated fusion energy before, it is sustaining the power that has been difficult to achieve. Highly sophisticated technology is required: A magnetic field, for instance, is used to contain the high temperatures created by the fusion process — some 150 million degrees Celsius, 10 times hotter than the center of the sun.
The Livermore lab uses a different technique than the tokamak, with researchers firing a 192-beam laser at a small capsule filled with deuterium-tritium fuel. The lab reported that an August 2021 test produced 1.35 megajoules of fusion energy, which was about 70% of the energy fired at the target. The lab said several subsequent experiments showed declining results, but researchers believed they had identified ways to improve the quality of the fuel capsule and the lasers’ symmetry.
Deuterium and tritium are both heavy isotopes of hydrogen, the International Atomic Energy Agency explains. Deuterium constitutes a tiny fraction of natural hydrogen and can be extracted inexpensively from seawater. Tritium can be made from lithium, which is also abundant in nature.
In Orange County, Calif., another contender in the fusion race, TAE Technologies, is on track to develop the first prototype commercial power plant for clean fusion energy by 2030, CEO Michl Binderbauer told MarketWatch after attending the first-ever White House Fusion Summit earlier this year. The TAE approach will make fusion generation essentially mobile, meaning it could be done right at the point where the electricity is needed — for instance, at a manufacturing plant.
At the March 2022 fusion summit, Biden administration officials announced what they called a “bold decadal vision” to accelerate the development of commercial fusion energy.
“There’s a fallacy in thinking that solar and wind can solve everything,” Binderbauer told MarketWatch. “Absolutely, they’re wonderful sources of power where it fits. But there are also limitations. There’s no world that can run on 100% renewables.”
Nuclear-industry analysts caution that it will take sustaining and repeating the process, and at scale, for the development to change traditional energy markets anytime soon.
“This doesn’t mean it’s not a big deal, but I still doubt how much this impacts the efforts to bring fusion closer to commercial reality. My sense is fusion is at least a decade or more away from any commercialization,” said Jonathan Hinze, president of UxC, which tracks the uranium and nuclear markets, in an email to MarketWatch.
There is also the high cost to consider when the technology remains mostly experimental, said Armond Cohen, executive director of the Clean Air Task Force, a policy group focused on decarbonizing the energy system.
Many new approaches are looking to significantly reduce the costs that have been associated with the large fusion science demonstration projects like the Livermore ignition process and the International Experimental Thermonuclear Reactor (ITER), which is the international effort aimed at developing a commercial tokamak reactor, Cohen said.
And, he said, efforts that combine the approaches could be most valuable. One such example, magneto inertial fusion, would reduce the energy inputs of the ignition approach by the NIF and reduce the capital costs associated with the large tokamak reactor undertaken by ITER.
“Such approaches can help accelerate both additional science and commercial demonstration efforts,” Cohen said.
Tony Leo, chief technology officer at FuelCell Energy
said he believes fusion technology can accompany advances in using hydrogen for power instead of fossil fuels.
Fusion ignition “is an example of technology that will help power a ‘green’ hydrogen economy over the long term,” he said. “The electricity from fusion will be a great partner to electrolysis technology — which would use electricity to split water into hydrogen and oxygen — to produce zero-carbon hydrogen.”
Best-use cases of hydrogen power are still in development, but early examples include powering a fleet of long-haul delivery trucks or buses used for mass transit.
The Associated Press contributed.