Fusion energy concept illustration

US scientists achieve major fusion energy breakthrough

Image credit: Kittiphat Abhiratvorakul | Dreamstime.com

For the first time, scientists have been able to produce more energy than was consumed during a fusion energy reaction in what was described as a potentially major step in the pursuit of zero-carbon power, the Financial Times has reported.

The fusion energy that produced a 120 per cent net energy gain took place in the federal Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) in California in the past two weeks, the newspaper said, citing three people with knowledge of the matter.

That would represent the first time that researchers have successfully produced more energy in a fusion reaction than was consumed during the process. 

To achieve this, the scientists used a process called inertial confinement fusion, which involves bombarding a tiny pellet of hydrogen plasma with the world’s biggest laser. 

Energy Department and LLNL spokespeople refused to comment or provide confirmation regarding the FT report, but said US Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm would "announce a major scientific breakthrough" on Tuesday.

The Washington Post later reported two people familiar with the research confirmed the development, with a senior fusion scientist telling the newspaper, "to most of us, this was only a matter of time."

Fusion is based on the same physical reactions that power the Sun and stars, which create energy by forcing atoms together. It is the opposite of standard nuclear reactors which rely on fission, breaking atoms apart, and it produces zero carbon. 

Fusion is a potential source of almost limitless clean energy, but is currently only carried out in experiments as it has proved difficult to harness. However, amid rising energy prices and a cost-of-living crisis, it could become a safe and clean alternative source of energy that might become available in the not-too-distant future.

"If this fusion energy breakthrough is true, it could be a game-changer for the world," tweeted Ted Lieu, a member of Congress from California.

The LLNL fusion facility has the size of three football fields and consists of almost 200 lasers which bombard a tiny spot with high levels of energy to initiate a fusion reaction.

According to news reports, the historic fusion reaction would have produced about 2.5 megajoules of energy, which was about 120 per cent of the 2.1MJ of energy in the lasers, although that the data is still being analysed.

“Initial diagnostic data suggests another successful experiment at the National Ignition Facility. However, the exact yield is still being determined and we can’t confirm that it is over the threshold at this time,” said officials at LLNL. “That analysis is in process, so publishing the information...before that process is complete would be inaccurate.”

The $3.5bn National Ignition Facility was primarily designed to test nuclear weapons by simulating explosions but has since been used to advance fusion energy research. Last year, it made a historic achievement, when it produced 1.37 megajoules from a fusion reaction, which was about 70 per cent of the energy in the lasers on that occasion.

Earlier this year the Biden administration passed the Inflation Reduction Act, which included nearly $370bn (£302bn) in new subsidies for low-carbon energy, in a plan that the government expects will reduce America’s planet-heating emissions by about 40 per cent by 2030.

Historically, fusion research has mostly been funded by public bodies. However, funding for commercial fusion projects has more than doubled in the last 12 months, with fusion companies raising more than $2.83bn (£2.39bn) in funding, an increase of 139 per cent from 2021, according to a recently published report by the Fusion Industry Association. 

Within the next two decades, the Fusion Industry Association expects fusion to not only ease energy costs and promote the global economy’s journey to net-zero but also to provide the basis for “prosperity, safety and security” in the long term. 

Although the US is a leader in this field, the UK has also pledged large investments in the technology, with a view towards becoming less dependent on gas exports and other fossil fuels. 

In 2020, the UK government committed £220m for the conceptual design of a fusion power station, and last year a Fusion Green Paper proposed governing nuclear fusion through an “innovation-friendly” approach different from that used for mature civil nuclear technology.

In October, West Burton in North Nottinghamshire was selected as the future home for the Spherical Tokamak for Energy Production (STEP) prototype fusion energy plant, which could become the world’s first prototype commercial nuclear reactor. China is also reportedly hoping to get an experimental nuclear fusion reactor running by 2040.

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