Fusion Breakthrough Announced by Scientists at US Department of Energy

Today the U.S. Department of Energy announced a breakthrough in nuclear fusion where more energy was gained from the process that was needed to heat atoms to temperatures hotter than the sun.

The electricity generated was only enough to boil 10 kettles of water, British fusion energy experts told CNN in anticipation of the release, but who nevertheless described it as “a true breakthrough moment which is tremendously exciting.”

Nuclear fusion is a potential new energy source with increasingly real potential to solve the West’s energy needs. It replicates the process of melding two atomic nuclei together which happens at the center of our sun, a function of physics which releases intense amounts of energy as heat through escaping neutrons.

Theoretically, it has the potential to generate enough energy to power a household for a human lifetime on a single glass of seawater, remarks MIT’s fusion company. It produces no emissions, and unlike nuclear fission, the currently-used method of nuclear power, generates no radioactive waste.

The breakthrough was achieved at the National Ignition Facility located in the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, California, where giant lasers bombarded a hydrogen fuel source, likely the heavy hydrogen isotope deuterium, with an array of 200 lasers. It produced around 5.6 kilowatt hours of energy.

Last year, GNN reported that this facility achieved a fusion reaction that put the equipment there on the cusp of generating clean energy at a rate greater than its expenditure.

“This is a landmark achievement for the researchers and staff at the National Ignition Facility who have dedicated their careers to seeing fusion ignition become a reality, and this milestone will undoubtedly spark even more discovery,” said U.S. Secretary of Energy Jennifer M. Granholm.

The press release also said the DoE is currently restarting a broad-based, coordinated fusion energy program in the United States. Combined with private-sector investment, there is a lot of momentum, they claim, to drive rapid progress toward fusion commercialization.

Lasers are only one currently-used method of nuclear fusion. Others involve using supermagnets to create pressures many-times greater than at the bottom of our ocean in a machine called a tokamak. Neutrons and alpha particles from the compressed fuel source escape and it the liner of the tokamak chamber, whose energy is collected as heat, used to power turbines and generate electricity.

This method was used to generate 11 megawatts of energy in 5 seconds in the Joint European Torus tokamak in February.

Still others are using plasma, the fourth state of matter, contained within a swirling sphere of liquid lithium, in the case of one Canadian-UK partnership. It’s currently unclear exactly which configuration will produce the conditions for market-scale nuclear fusion.

All these methods are trying to tackle the same problems: can humanity create a system of these incredibly expensive, sophisticated, and energy-hungry machines that won’t cost billions of dollars, and can actually sustain a fusion reaction long enough for it to generate electricity to power buildings.

With today’s announcement those problems remain, but feasibility is always an important step in the road to developing anything.