NIF Target Bat, Livermore, California
The National Ignition Facility (NIF) Target Bay in Livermore, California. The US Energy Department announced on Tuesday (December 13, 2022) a "major scientific breakthrough" at the national laboratory by researchers with the agency's National Nuclear Security Administration. Image Credit: Damien Jemison | Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory

Nuclear fusion is a science that has the potential to disrupt the world's energy system, and researchers in California have reportedly achieved a significant advancement in this field.

On Tuesday (December 13, 2022), scientists at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory of the US Department of Energy near San Francisco announced they were able to create a fusion reaction that produced more energy than it consumed, which if proven, is a remarkable feat.

In a tweet, the US Department of Energy stated: "BREAKING NEWS: This is an announcement that has been decades in the making. On December 5, 2022 a team from DOE's @Livermore_Lab made history by achieving fusion ignition. This breakthrough will change the future of clean power and America’s national defense forever."

It's a bold scientific claim: Fusion is the same mechanism that powers the Sun and the stars. The technology offers the possibility of an abundance of carbon-free electricity. 

What is the experiment all about?

It's dubbed as a "breakthrough". US researchers at the National Ignition Facility (NIF) used cutting-edge equipment, including one of the largest lasers in the world, to concentrate beams on targets of hydrogen isotopes no larger than a pea. This resulted in a fusion reaction that, for a brief period, generated more power than it took to start.

When two light atoms, like hydrogen, are heated to extremely high temperatures of 100 million degrees Celsius (180 million degrees Fahrenheit), they can fuse to form a heavier atom, which releases a lot of energy.

It differs from fission, which occurs when a reactor fires a neutron into a uranium atom, causing it to divide into two smaller atoms, releasing huge amounts of heat energy.

Why is it significant?

For one, it represents a milestone that suggests man would eventually be able to harness the energy of the Sun to build a commercial power plant on Earth.

In order to fuse hydrogen isotopes stored in a superheated plasma state into helium, "bombarding" them is necessary to release a neutron and carbon-free energy. Though the technology has been tested by scientists for years, it normally demands a lot of electricity.

For many decades, producing a fusion reaction that produces more energy than it consumes — what is known as a net-energy gain — has been the ultimate goal of researchers. The reported NIF feat, therefore, marks a significant progress.

“Simply put, this is one of the most impressive scientific feats of the 21st century,” US Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm told reporters at a Washington, DC media briefing on Tuesday.

Nuclear Fusion
Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm announces a major scientific breakthrough in fusion research that was made at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, during a news conference at the Department of Energy in Washington, Tuesday, Dec. 13, 2022 Image Credit: AP
Net energy gain
Since the 1950s, physicists have tried to harness the fusion reaction that powers the sun, but no one has yet succeeded in producing more energy from the reaction than it consumes.

This achievement is known as net energy gain or target gain.

Achieving net energy gain would demonstrate that the process can offer a dependable, abundant alternative to fossil fuels and conventional nuclear energy.

How much energy was used and energy produced?

On December 5, 2022, US researchers at the NIF, a section of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, directed 2.05 megajoules of energy onto a tiny cylinder containing a pellet of frozen deuterium and tritium, heavier forms of hydrogen.

The hydrogen inside the pellet fused as a result of the pellet's compression, which also produced extremely high temperatures and pressures. The fusing atomic nuclei produced 3.15 megajoules of energy in a brief explosion that lasted less than a billionth of a second. That is roughly 50% more energy, or "net energy gain", than was consumed to heat the pellet.

The conflagration was put out in an instant, yet its impact will live on. Net energy gain, is the long-term goal of nuclear fusion research.

To achieve it, scientists used what is known as "inertial confinement fusion" technique.

"Inertial confinement fusion" technique
Essentially, it entails hitting a tiny pellet of hydrogen plasma with the largest laser in the world at the National Ignition Facility (NIF) in the US.

The NIF is the largest, most energetic laser in the world. It was built to push a form of fusion called "inertial confinement fusion" (ICF) forward and help with the goal of stockpile stewardship (i.e. management of the nuclear arsenal).

A private company, Innoven Energy, is also known to be on laser inertial confinement fusion technology.

Who are the key backers of this particular nuclear fusion research?

Investments that run into billions have been made in nuclear fusion by backers including Amazon's Jeff Bezos, Microsoft's Bill Gates, and venture capitalist and PayPal founder Peter Thiel.

The proposal also began to gain support in recent years from sovereign wealth funds (SWFs), national development banks, and key venture capitalists. It's one indication that the industry is beginning to take the idea more seriously.

Will it produce power for homes in 2023?

Most probably not. A technology has to be proven through repeated experiments not only in a lab, but also in the field. This would entail a long approval process to convince people and authorites that it is both effective and safe.

If the latest fusion experiment results showing "net gain" can be repeated and are validated, it could spin into a whole new industry.

Capital would be needed for fusion to actually make a difference to the climate and the energy equation, and scale it up quickly, said Nicholas Hawker, co-founder and CEO of First Light Fusion (FLF), an Oxford University spin-off that has been developing a revolutionary inertial fusion technique since 2011.

How many businesses are engaged in nuclear fusion research?

According to the Fusion Industry Association, there are at least 35 such businesses working on fusion on a global scale (FIA).  The goal of several of the 35 fusion research teams is to provide evidence or proof of viability.

NIF Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory
The National Ignition Facility (NIF) at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, which ignites fusion fuel with a system of 192 lasers, where the latest fusion record was attained. Preamplifiers, shown in this photo, are devices that help these lasers achieve high energy.  Image Credit: Damien Jamison | Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory

What are the potential challenges to nuclear fusion?

(1) Nuclear fission: It may face the challenges from traditional and proven nuclear fission-based energy (power generated from splitting atoms) currently employed in commercial nuclear power reactors.

Despite being commercially available for decades, it still only generates 10% of the world's electricity, a much lower percentage than coal and gas.

(2) Solar and wind: Moreover, solar and wind power, which are both more affordable and have developed supply networks, would also pose a threat to the potential market share of fusion.

(3) Battery technology: The rapidly-expanding battery storage business is addressing the primary flaw of solar/wind, that is, intermittency.

How are the numbers calculated?

According to the Fusion Industry Association (FIA), one gram of fusion fuel produces 70,000 kilowatt hours of energy, which is sufficient to run six typical US families for an entire year.

If it can then be scaled up sufficiently, fusion holds the possibility of 24/7 clean power with less danger and waste than fission.

If we live to see the day nuclear fission becomes commercially available, that is, into a form useful for me and you, it would indeed be a breakthough of a lifetime.

Given that at least 35 companies or teams are working on fusion, it's a positive thing that many businesses and venture capitalists seek to find a nuclear fusion process that works.

Numerous start-ups working toward the same objective increase the likelihood that they will succeed in mastering the famously challenging fusion process.

According to BloombergNEF, funding for fusion firms like Commonwealth Fusion Systems and Helion Energy increased to $2.3 billion in 2021 and is expected to surpass $1 billion this year.

What happens next?

Even if the results of NIF experiment prove to be a breakthrough, there is still a long way to go until a technology is practical for grid-scale use as an alternative to renewables to help wean the globe off carbon emissions and slow down climate change.

(With inputs from AFP/Bloomberg/Reuters)