Nuclear fusion as a source of energy for electricity is plausible, an experiment at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in Northern California has demonstrated. Using 192 lasers, the research undertaking reached the point in fusion experimentation known as “fusion ignition” for the first time.
At a press conference on Dec. 13, Secretary of Energy Jennifer M. Granholm called it a “fusion breakthrough that will go down in the history books.”
While this doesn’t mean you can flip on the lights in your house and use fusion energy for at least decades, history will indeed record the breakthrough. Here’s what it may say: On Dec. 5, 2022, the Lawrence Livermore team aimed many lasers at some hydrogen atoms, pulled the trigger, and for a split-second the atoms became a plasma that generated a fusion reaction. The lasers gave off 2.05 megajoules of energy, and that energy in turn caused a reaction that heated those atoms to millions of degrees Celsius. Under such sunlike conditions, these types of atoms fuse and become helium, and in this case, that fusion gave off 3.15 megajoules of energy.
In other words, this fusion reaction produced about 1.5 times as much fusion energy as the lasers gave off with their beams.
You can think of previous fusion experiments as a little like matches striking against the phosphorus strip on the matchbox and producing sparks. This was the first time the match head actually produced a flame. But this flame is still too short-lived and inefficient to light the paper stick, and then be used to light other things.
Scientists have been working toward a demonstration like this for almost 100 years, ever since British physicist Arthur Eddington’s 1926 paper, “The Internal Constitution of the Stars,” was published. And researchers have been fusing atoms for decades. You can even make a fusion reactor in your garage if you want (probably don’t do this).
Related video: Department of Energy expected to announce nuclear fusion energy breakthrough (KERO 23 Bakersfield, CA).
The challenge was fusing those atoms efficiently enough to call it an energy source instead of a big energy drain, and in a manner of speaking, that remains the challenge moving forward.