Five Notes of Fusion Energy Breakthrough
The Biden administration announced a breakthrough in nuclear fusion, raising hopes for more progress toward clean energy.
Nuclear fusion – the process in which atoms fuse together to create energy – has been studied as a potential energy source.
But various hurdles have kept the reaction from being a viable clean energy option, and a commercial effort is still likely decades away.
Here’s what you should know about the DOE announcement:
1. It is the first time that a net energy gain has been made from the merger
The gist of Tuesday’s news is that scientists at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California were able to produce more energy via fusion than they put in. They put in 2.05 MJ of energy and got 3.15 MJ.
This is the first time that scientists in the laboratory have been able to generate a net energy output through fusion, which shows that it is possible to do so.
“It is the first time this has been done in a laboratory anywhere in the world. Simply put, this is one of the most impressive scientific achievements of the 21st century,” Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm told reporters at a news conference.
While the technology is not yet ready for commercialization, a successful trial raises possibilities for widespread deployment of fusion energy.
Previously, the lab came relatively close to breaking even when it generated 70% of the energy it put into the fusion reaction last year.
2. It is seen as another potential source of carbon-free energy
If fusion becomes a large-scale energy source, it will provide another way to generate carbon-free energy as the world looks to transition away from fossil fuels that are warming the planet.
US officials said they hope to have a completely clean electric grid by 2035 and a commercially viable fusion power within a decade.
Like wind, solar, and conventional nuclear energy—where atoms split apart rather than fused together—nuclear fusion doesn’t emit any planet-warming gases or air pollution.
“This achievement takes us an important step forward toward the zero-carbon potential and abundant fusion energy that underpins our society,” said Granholm.
We can use it to produce clean electricity, transportation fuel, and heavy industry [and] So much more.” “It would be like adding a power drill to our toolbox in building this clean energy economy.”
Unlike conventional nuclear energy, which is called fission, fusion does not produce radioactive waste that requires long-term storage. And unlike traditional hydroelectric dams, they do not require finding — and flooding — a new reservoir.
The main place where fusion power could be useful if plugged into the existing US grid is in what is called “base load” capacity: a fixed amount of electricity that existing grids depend on.
In the United States, about 19 percent of electricity comes from nuclear power, while 60 percent comes from fossil fuels such as coal, natural gas, and petroleum, and the remainder from renewables, according to the US Energy Information Administration.
Caroline Currans, assistant professor of nuclear engineering and radiological sciences at the University of Michigan, told The Hill Monday that nuclear fusion does produce byproducts that contain small amounts of radioactive material, but she said the material could remain at the power plant site and be used to fuel a reaction. Integration into the future rather than having to go elsewhere.
Paul Dbar, who was Under Secretary of Energy for Science during the Trump administration, pointed out some of the advantages fusion could have over wind and solar power in an interview with The Hill this week.
Of other energy sources, he said, “It has to be windy, it has to be sunny, and it takes up a lot of land,” though he noted that battery technology could be used to improve the intermittence problem.
However, the merger comes with its own drawbacks. A future fusion industry built around large, expensive individual plants will rely on an expansive, high-capacity electric grid to move power across a region or country—something that seems as remote at this point as commercial fusion power.
3. The breakthrough positions the United States as a leader in the global quest for integration
The successful net energy production experience is a clear sign of the success of burgeoning US public and private investment in fusion energy — particularly as the European Union, China and South Korea build their own programs.
Smithsonian reports that in January, the Advanced Superconducting Experimental Tokamak (EAST) in China set a 17-minute fusion reaction record.
The International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) in southern France will be the world’s largest fusion facility when tests begin in 2025, according to the statement.
In March, the Energy Ministry released a ten-year roadmap for achieving commercial integration of the electricity markets.
That initiative touted the $2.5 billion the private sector pumped into the merger last year — about 3.5 times what the government spends directly.
The White House summit in April was also encouraged by the fact that two-thirds of private merger companies and suppliers are based in the United States — and that American companies are the leading recipients of international merger funding.
But while it is tempting to think of integration in terms of a “race” between nations, the drive for the power of integration is highly international and collaborative.
The US companies built the ITER tokamak’s central solenoid magnet—needed to create the magnetic fields that power the superheated plasma during a fusion reaction, according to the US government.
And the Energy Department in November announced $50 million for fusion research — part of which will go towards supporting US researchers at ITER and EAST, The Hill reported.
4. Fusion is still years away from becoming a major energy source
The development was a huge step towards fusion energy, but you’re not likely to be using that kind of energy to power your lights anytime soon.
Granholm told reporters that management hopes to see a commercial consolidation within a decade.
“The president has a 10-year vision of getting to a commercial fusion reactor within 10 years, of course, so we have to get to work,” she told reporters.
It could take much longer, “decades,” before the technology can be commercialized, said Kim Podell, director of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, where the breach occurred.
“There are very big hurdles,” Badil said, in both science and technology.
Dabar told The Hill this week that he believes the first commercial experimental fusion reactors could appear between 2030 and 2035 and that large-scale deployment could come a few years later.
“It takes a long time for power systems to go from testing to full deployment,” he said.
5. It It has military implications
The applications of this discovery—like the experiment itself—reach beyond peacetime.
Marvin Adams, deputy director of the National Nuclear Security Administration, said that while the eventual ramifications of this test are a milestone on the road to clean energy, the “most immediate” implications were military.
So are the program’s roots: The National Ignition Facility at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory uses high-powered lasers to “ignite” hydrogen and cause a self-sustaining explosion—a system developed in part to test advanced nuclear weapons without the need to detonate a full bomb.
“You start with a small spark, then the spark gets bigger and bigger and bigger, and then the burn spreads through,” physicist Riccardo Petit of the University of Rochester told public radio station WBUR.
This is a scaled-down version of the same process used to launch a hydrogen or “thermonuclear” bomb — which uses the power of fusion to release 1,000 times as much energy as the bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945, Time magazine reports.
Fusion reactors don’t have nearly enough fuel to produce this kind of explosion—and a thermonuclear bomb requires a separate nuclear explosion to start ignition, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency.
But US officials hinted at military applications. Adams noted that fusion is “a fundamental process in modern nuclear weapons” and that a milestone such as this was a strong argument for American military power.
Adams said the successful test demonstrates “America’s world-leading expertise in weapons-related technologies” while continuing to “show our allies that we know what we’re doing.”
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