February 8, 2023

Is the fusion dream finally here?

Scientists who study nuclear fusion, the reaction that powers the sun, have been emailing each other about a major milestone in their field in recent days.

Discussions went into overdrive on Sunday, when British “Financial Times” published an article Say scientists at California’s Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory have achieved ignition, a state in which more energy is produced in experiments than put into the laser beam.

Then on Monday, the federal Ministry of Energy announced that it would demonstrate a “significant scientific breakthrough” made by the lab.

Here’s what you need to know about fusion energy and the announcements scheduled for Tuesday.

At 10 a.m. ET on Tuesday, Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm and other federal officials will make an announcement in Washington, D.C. on the Department of Energy website Or in the video player embedded above.

Fusion is the thermonuclear reaction that ignites the sun and other stars — hydrogen atoms fusing into helium. Helium is slightly less massive than the original hydrogen atom. Thus, the difference in mass translates into a burst of energy according to Einstein’s iconic E=mc² equation.

It took place at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, which plays a key role in developing and maintaining the US nuclear arsenal. Among its many initiatives is the National Ignition Facility (NIF).

The main purpose of the NIF, which cost $3.5 billion to build, is to conduct experiments and help the United States maintain its nuclear weapons without conducting nuclear test explosions. It could also advance fusion research, proponents say, potentially leading to viable commercial power plants.

Last year, Livermore scientists reported a major leap forward, a burst of energy — 10 petawatts of power — equivalent to 70 percent of the energy of a laser hitting a hydrogen target.

But the explosion — essentially a tiny hydrogen bomb — lasted only 100 trillionths of a second.

Fusion, which could be produced in a controlled manner here on Earth, could mean a source of energy that wouldn’t produce greenhouse gases like coal and oil, or dangerous long-lived radioactive waste, like current nuclear power plants.

But NIF’s laser experiment is a long way from being practical enough to generate electricity like a commercial power plant.

However, successful experiments can point the way to developing technologies that can be used outside of laboratory settings.

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