Nuclear Fusion Energy Breakthrough in California
Friday, April 12, 2024
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Scientists at a federal nuclear weapons facility have made a potentially significant advance in fusion research that could lead to a source of bountiful energy in the future, according to a government official. The advance is expected to be announced Tuesday by the Department of Energy, which said a “major scientific breakthrough” was made at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California. Jennifer Granholm, the energy secretary, and White House and other Energy Department officials are expected to be in attendance. The Financial Times reported on Sunday that the scientific advance involves the National Ignition Facility, or NIF, which uses giant lasers to create conditions that briefly mimic the explosions of nuclear weapons.


 A technician inside the preamplifier support structure of the National Ignition Facility of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California 1

A technician Inside the Preamplifier Support Structure of the National Ignition Facility of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California 


The government official, who spoke anonymously to discuss results that are not yet public, said that the fusion experiment at NIF achieved what is known as ignition, where the fusion energy generated equals the laser energy that started the reaction. Ignition is also called energy gain of one. A scientist familiar with the results who spoke anonymously for the same reason also confirmed that NIF has achieved ignition. Such a development would improve the ability of the United States to maintain its nuclear weapons without nuclear testing and could set the stage for future progress that could one day lead to the use of laser fusion as a source of carbon-free energy. Although not yet publicly announced, the news has quickly bounced among physicists and other scientists who study fusion. “Yesterday a scientist friend sent me a note stating that Livermore had exceeded energy gain of one just last week and would be announcing the result on Tuesday,” Stephen Bodner, a retired plasma physicist who has long been a critic of NIF, said in an email Monday morning. “They deserve commendations for reaching their goal.”



The Hope for Fusion Energy:

Nuclear fusion, which replicates the process that takes place inside the sun, is seen as a possible solution to the world’s energy challenge. A Major Breakthrough: Scientists are expected to announce a potentially significant advance in fusion research. Here’s what you need to know about fusion.Edging Toward Reality: Amid rising alarm about global warming, long-shot money has been flowing into start-ups that seek the energy of the stars.An Emerging Industry: Dozens of start-ups and heavily funded government development projects have been pursuing efforts to build commercial fusion reactors.A Clean-Energy Dream Machine: Most fusion efforts have employed doughnut-shaped reactors known as tokamaks. Here’s how they work.


MIT Fusion Power featured images


What is Fusion?

Fusion is the thermonuclear reaction that powers the sun and other stars — the fusing of hydrogen atoms into helium. The mass of helium is slightly less than the original hydrogen atoms. Thus, by Einstein’s iconic E=mc² equation, that difference in mass is converted into a burst of energy. Fusion that could be produced in a controlled fashion on Earth could mean an energy source that does not produce greenhouse gases like coal and oil, or dangerous, long-lived radioactive waste, as current nuclear power plants do.


diagram showing nuclear fission vector 1


Most fusion efforts to date have employed doughnut-shaped reactors known as tokamaks. Within the reactors, hydrogen gas is heated to temperatures hot enough that the electrons are stripped away from the hydrogen nuclei, creating what is known as a plasma — clouds of positively charged nuclei and negatively charged electrons. Magnetic fields trap the plasma within the doughnut shape, and the nuclei fuse together, releasing energy in the form of neutrons flying outward.   The breakthrtough however, involves a different approach. NIF consists of 192 gigantic lasers, which fire simultaneously at a metal cylinder about the size of a pencil eraser. The cylinder, heated to some 5.4 million degrees Fahrenheit, vaporizes, generating an implosion of X-rays, which in turn heats and compresses a BB-size pellet of frozen deuterium and tritium, two heavier forms of hydrogen. The implosion fuses the hydrogen into helium, creating fusion.



The BB sized cryogenic target used to reach the burning plasma state in an experiment in November 2020 and February 2021 at the National Ignition Facility 1

The BB-Sized Cryogenic Target Used to Reach the Burning Plasma State

in an Experiment at the National Ignition Facility


What Laser Fusion Advances Have Been Made So Far?

The main purpose of NIF, built at a cost of $3.5 billion, is to conduct experiments that help the United States maintain its nuclear weapons without nuclear test explosions. Proponents also said it could advance fusion research that could lead to viable commercial power plants. However, NIF initially generated hardly any fusion at all. In 2014, Livermore scientists finally reported success, but the energy produced then was minuscule — the equivalent of what a 60-watt light bulb consumes in five minutes. In 2021, Livermore scientists reported a major leap, a burst of energy — 10 quadrillion watts of power — that was 70 percent as much as the energy of laser light hitting the hydrogen target. But the burst — essentially a miniature hydrogen bomb — lasted only 100 trillionths of a second.

The report by the Financial Times on Sunday suggests Livermore will announce that in the latest experiment the fusion energy produced exceeded the amount of laser energy hitting the hydrogen target. For that to occur, the fusion reaction had to be self-sustaining, meaning the torrent of particles flowing outward from the hot spot at the center of the pellet heated surrounding hydrogen atoms and caused them to fuse as well.


What Are the Obstacles to Fusion Power?

An important caveat is that the claim focuses on the laser energy hitting the hydrogen target. NIF’s lasers are extremely inefficient, meaning only a small fraction of the energy used to power the lasers actually makes it into the beams themselves. More modern technology like solid-state lasers would be more efficient but still far from 100 percent fusion; for this to be practical, the fusion energy output must be at least several times greater than that of the incoming lasers.


nuclear fusion lawrence livermorenational 


Does the Breakthrough Mean We’ll Have Cheap Fusion Energy Soon?

No. Even if scientists figure out how to generate bigger bursts of fusion, immense engineering hurdles would remain. NIF’s experiments have studied one burst at a time. A practical fusion power plant using this concept would require a machine-gun pace of laser bursts with new hydrogen targets sliding into place for each burst. Then the torrents of neutrons flying outward from the fusion reactions would have to be converted into electricity. The laser complex fills a building with a footprint equal to three football fields — too big, too expensive, too inefficient for a commercial power plant.A manufacturing process to mass-produce the precise hydrogen targets would have to be developed.



Dozens of companies are racing to deliver electricity from fusion — a form of carbon-free electricity often compared to a “star in a bottle.” While fusion power had been thought to be decades away, in May, Microsoft signed the world’s first contract to purchase fusion-generated electricity. It’s a sign that the industry, long seen as akin to science fiction, is achieving a new level of commercial maturity. Helion, the company that signed the deal with Microsoft, is just one of the dozens of companies, backed by billions in venture capital, competing to bring the energy source to commercial use — and under heavy pressure to begin showing results. The particular physics of fusion makes that a diverse field.



“There’s almost a staggering a variety of technological approaches to try to make fusion work, which has been part of the excitement of the last few years,” said Dennis Whyte, director of the MIT Plasma Science and Fusion Center.    Helion’s approach seeks to cut out the middleman by an unconventional means: generating electricity directly off the fusion reaction itself. It takes advantage of the fact that magnetic fields and electric currents are two aspects of the same phenomenon — or more specifically, that disruptions in a magnetic field, caused in this case by a series of tiny fusion explosions, creates outpourings of electricity. Because that approach doesn’t require a stable, self-sustaining reaction, “we’ve been able to build fusion systems that are much, much smaller than any of the other approaches to fusion,” Kirtley said.   “And that means you can build them faster, you can learn more, and you can build power plants sooner.”




How soon? In the 2017 Rolling Stone interview, Kirtley predicted fusion electricity within 10 years — a prediction that he is now financially obligated to (more or less) fulfill.    In early May, 2023  Helion committed to provide Microsoft with 50 megawatts of fusion power by 2028, and the company faces financial penalties if it fails.