What fusion’s breakthrough means for clean energy

What fusion’s breakthrough means for clean energy thumbnail

The advance demonstrates the basic viability of fusion energy, a goal researchers have been chasing since the 1950s. But the scientific experiment required the world’s most powerful lasers and is not an immediately practical route to fusion power. To make fusion a commercial technology capable of providing reliable, carbon-free electricity to the grid, many more engineering and scientific breakthroughs will be required.

In fusion reactions, either in a reactor, or in the core of a star’s core, atoms are smashed into each other until they fuse and release energy. Fusion energy is designed to produce more energy than the amount of fuel used to energize and keep the fuel in place. It also aims to control the process. This has not been possible until now.

The fusion reaction at NIF produced 3. 15 megajoules of energy, more than the 2. 05 megajoules provided by the lasers used in the reactor. Last year, the same facility produced about 70% of the energy supplied to the reaction by the lasers. Although the lasers consume more energy to operate than the reactor, it is still a significant milestone to see net energy gain within this system.

This puts a lot wind in the sails for the community,” said Anne White , head nuclear science and engineering at MIT. She adds that it doesn’t necessarily mean we’ll see fusion power on our grid tomorrow.

The laboratory uses the largest and most powerful lasers in an approach to fusion called “inertial confinement”.

Although inertial confinement is the first scheme to generate net energy gain, it is not the best path forward for commercial fusion efforts. Many fusion scientists think magnetic confinement–specifically a doughnut-shaped reactor called a tokamak–is a better option. The net gain from the inertial confinement experiment is not comparable to other approaches to fusion, such as tokamaks. White says that the engineering and physics involved in getting there are different for each concept.

Some well-funded startups, like Commonwealth Fusion, are pursuing magnetic confinement schemes, while Helion Energy and others are working on hybrid magneto-inertial confinement systems and some, like TAE Technologies, are targeting still other approaches. White also points out that all of them claim they will eventually achieve net profit, as it is the first step towards a viable fusion power system.

Still, achieving net gain is a significant boon for a field that’s been chasing results for decades.

This moment is huge,” states Michl binderbauer , CEO at TAE Technologies. Although the engineering of different fusion approaches may differ, Binderbauer sees this moment as proof that fusion power can work at its most basic level. White believes that fusion should produce more energy than is being supplied after reaching net gain. This is particularly important for inertial confinement methods because lasers are not very efficient and take more energy from the grid that they give to the fusion reactor. In reality, the reactor produced 3. 15 megajoules took about 300 megajoules from the grid.

Since the lasers for NIF were created, more efficient laser technology was developed. Researchers also see a path that could produce hundreds of megajoules in reactions, said Lawrence Livermore director Kim Budil during a pressconference after the announcement.

Building reactors that can consistently and reliably produce significant amounts of energy will not be an easy task. We are still many steps away from commercial applications of fusion energy.

But even though it is impossible to build a reactor at a national laboratory, achieving net gain is a significant milestone in fusion. As Budil said during the press conference, “This demonstrates it can be done.”

Read More