The conversation around nuclear fusion is changing. For years, the idea of commercial nuclear fusion has been a pipe dream at best and science fiction at worst. But now, a series of increasingly promising scientific breakthroughs, an influx of private and public funding, and burgeoning governmental support has drastically changed the outlook for commercial nuclear fusion. All of a sudden, we’re talking about the technology in terms of “when” and not “if.”
The dramatic turnaround has taken place in just the last three years, as the science behind nuclear fusion has suddenly shifted from a slow trickle of mini-advancements to sudden quantum leaps in experimental breakthroughs. All at once, labs around the world began to achieve benchmarks that had always been just out of reach. All of these near-simultaneous (on the long timeline of nuclear fusion research) breakthroughs have been critical, but three, in particular, have changed the game. First, in 2021, the Experimental Advanced Superconducting Tokamak (EAST) in Hefei, China shattered previous records for a sustained steady-state fusion reaction, achieving fusion for an previously unthinkable 1,056 seconds – nearly 20 minutes. In the same year, The Joint European Torus (JET) in Oxfordshire broke its 1997 fusion record by a more-than two-fold gain when it produced 59 megajoules of energy in a single fusion experiment.
But the experiment that really marked a turning point was the incredible achievement of ignition at the National Ignition Facility (NIF) at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in December of 2022. These scientists managed to finally overcome what remains as nuclear fusion’s most significant barrier: creating net positive energy. The now-legendary experiment laser-beamed 2.05 megajoules of light onto a tiny pellet of fusion fuel the size of a peppercorn, sparking an explosion that released 3.15 MJ of energy – about the amount of energy released by exploding three sticks of dynamite.
And now, crucially, they’ve replicated the experiment. In fact, in July, the NIF team not only managed to once again achieve that holy grail of ignition, they were able to significantly increase the achieved energy output. The scientists originally expected more or less the same amount of energy output as their December 2022 experiment, but instead they produced a whopping 3.88 megajoules, a near two-fold gain compared to the energy they beamed into the experiment. “The Livermore results raise hopes that fusion can one day be used to generate bountiful amounts of electricity without producing greenhouse gases or long-lived radioactive waste,” the New York Times recently reported about the second breakthrough.
While the replication of the December ignition is a crucial step forward, it comes amongst a slew of failed attempts to do the same. NIF scientists are still trying to learn the delicate balance of how to make the experiment reliably replicable each and every time they attempt ignition, now that they have the formula for its achievement. “It was a little bit surprising that we did not achieve ignition on all of them,” Richard Town, the associate program director of the laser fusion program at Livermore, told the New York Times. Some of the variables that are getting in the way of consistency include imperfections in the laser technology and slight variations in the fuel capsules.
Indeed, although commercial nuclear fusion is closer than ever, it’s certainly not here yet. While the NIF experiments have been groundbreaking, there are a few important caveats to the magnitude of their success. When the energy used to power the lasers themselves are taken into account, and not just the energy actually beamed onto the nuclear fuel, the experiment is a net energy drain by a wide margin. “Furthermore, NIF is an enormously expensive project being carried out in a national lab project funded to research nuclear weapons – hardly the same conditions that a commercial pursuit would take place in,” Oilprice reported last year. In fact, Wired reported last year that in all likelihood, “the real fusion energy breakthrough is still decades away.”
But in the meantime NIF will continue to push toward that finish line by continuing to refine, upgrade, and optimize their experiments. In fact, a new series of experiments is just about to begin at the facility with more powerful lasers, upgraded from 2.05 megajoules to 2.2, raising the chances of more consistent and more powerful energy production.
By Haley Zaremba for Oilprice.com
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