Live Updates: Nuclear Fusion Reaction Breakthrough

NIF target area operators inspect a final optical assembly during routine maintenance at the National Ignition Facility at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. (Jason Laurea/Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory)

Scientists at the National Ignition Facility at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory made history by successfully producing a nuclear fusion reaction resulting in a net energy gain, a breakthrough hailed by US officials as a “historic achievement” and a ” milestone for the future of clean energy.”

Here are the key things to know about today’s announcement – and possible next steps:

What is nuclear fusion and why is it important? Nuclear fusion is a man-made process that replicates the same energy that powers the sun. Nuclear fusion occurs when two or more atoms are fused into a single larger one, a process that generates a massive amount of energy in the form of heat.

Scientists around the world have been studying nuclear fusion for decades, hoping to recreate it with a new source that provides unlimited, carbon-free energy โ€“ without the nuclear waste created by current nuclear reactors. Fusion projects mainly use the elements deuterium and tritium, which are both isotopes of hydrogen.

The deuterium from a glass of water, plus a little tritium, could power a house for a year. Tritium is rarer and more difficult to obtain, although it can be made synthetically.

“Unlike coal, you only need a small amount of hydrogen, and it’s the most abundant thing found in the universe,” Julio Friedmann, chief scientist at Carbon Direct and former Chief Energy Technologist at Lawrence Livermore. “Hydrogen is found in water, so the substance that generates this energy is extremely limitless and clean.”

Why was today’s announcement important? This is the first time that scientists have managed to produce this, instead of breaking even as past experiments have.

Although there are still many steps to take before this is commercially viable, it is essential that scientists show that they can create more energy than at the start. Otherwise, it doesn’t make much sense to develop it.

“That’s very important because from an energy point of view, it can’t be a source of energy if you don’t take more energy out than you put in,” Friedmann told CNN. “Earlier breakthroughs have been important, but it’s not the same as generating energy that could one day be used on a larger scale.”

What are the next steps? Scientists and experts now need to figure out how to produce much more energy from nuclear fusion on a much larger scale.

At the same time, they must find a way to possibly reduce the cost of nuclear fusion so that it can be used commercially.

Scientists will also need to harvest the energy produced by the fusion and transfer it to the power grid as electricity. It will be years โ€“ if not decades โ€“ before fusion can produce unlimited amounts of clean energy, and scientists are racing against time to fight climate change.


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