On Tuesday, US scientists announced a development in fusion energy that, should businesses be successful in commercializing the technology in the ensuing decades, could one day contribute to the slowing of climate change.
According to the US Energy Department, researchers at the Lawrence Livermore National Lab in California briefly increased the amount of energy in a fusion experiment on December 5 for the first time.
The energy was released when two light atoms fused into a denser one by using a laser to target a target of fuel.
At an Energy Department event, Lawrence Livermore director Kimberly Budil told reporters that commercialization is probably not five or six decades away, but rather sooner.
“With concerted effort and investment, a few decades of research on the underlying technologies could put us in a position to build a power plant,” Budil said.
About a century ago, scientists discovered that the sun is powered by fusion, and they have been working to establish fusion on Earth ever since.
According to the Energy Department, the experiment briefly achieved what is known as fusion ignition by producing 3.15 megajoules of energy after the laser delivered 2.05 megajoules to the target.
When she temporarily interned at Livermore as a youngster in 1978, Arati Prabhakar, now the head of the White House Office of Sciences and Technology Policy, learned about the fusion experiment, she said it is a “tremendous example of what perseverance can achieve.”
The success, according to nuclear physicists outside the lab, will be a significant step forward, but much more research must be done before fusion can be made economically viable.
The energy output of the experiment, according to Tony Roulstone, a nuclear energy specialist at the University of Cambridge, was barely 0.5% of the energy required to initially light the lasers.
“Therefore, we can say that this result … is a success of the science – but still a long way from providing useful, abundant, clean energy,” Roulstone said.
A power plant would need to generate enough energy to power the lasers and achieve ignition continuously in order to be commercially viable.
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