Scientists at the National Ignition Facility at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California have reportedly made a breakthrough in their mission to unlock the potentially limitless energy of nuclear fusion, by getting more energy out of a reaction than they put in.
Nuclear fusion research began in the 1950s, but a positive energy gain, known as ignition, has eluded scientists. The U.S. Department of Energy is expected to announce the achievement on Tuesday.
Nuclear fusion involves smashing lighter elements like hydrogen together to form heavier elements, and releasing energy in the process. The goal is to replicate the process that creates heat and light in the sun and other stars.
The breakthrough, which was first reported by the Financial Times, is a huge step forward for the technology, and could unleash a new source of clean energy. Unlike nuclear fission which is used to create electricity all over the world, nuclear fusion doesn’t generate radioactive waste.
Dr Robbie Scott, of the Science and Technology Facilities Council’s (STFC) Central Laser Facility (CLF) Plasma Physics Group, who was involved in the research, told The Guardian the results are a “momentous achievement”.
“Fusion has the potential to provide a near-limitless, safe, clean, source of carbon-free baseload energy,” he said. “This seminal result from the National Ignition Facility is the first laboratory demonstration of fusion ‘energy-gain’ – where more fusion energy is output than input by the laser beams. The scale of the breakthrough for laser fusion research cannot be overstated.”
Achieving a net energy gain from nuclear fusion is an incredible achievement, but there is still work to be done if the process will supply energy on a large scale.