DOE National Laboratory Makes History by Achieving Fusion Ignition

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) and DOE’s National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) today announced the achievement of fusion ignition at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL)—a major scientific breakthrough decades in the making that will pave the way for advancements in national defense and the future of clean power.

Preamplifiers at the National Ignition Facility that are used to begin generating the energy required by the facility’s lasers to initiate nuclear fusion. [Photo: Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory]

On December 5, a team at LLNL’s National Ignition Facility (NIF) conducted the first controlled fusion experiment in history to reach this milestone, also known as scientific energy breakeven, meaning it produced more energy from fusion than the laser energy used to drive it.

We’ve been able to create nuclear fusion for a while now, but this is the first ever recorded positive net energy reaction from nuclear fusion. This reaction had a Q factor of 1.5. Q>1 has been the holy grail of nuclear fusion for decades — it means you get more energy from a reaction than you put into it. Previously, nuclear fusion was great and all, but it wasn’t a viable source of clean energy when you put in Q and get back Q-1. It didn’t scale, but now it might. Scaling and commercializing Q>1 nuclear fusion is likely the most realistic path towards living in a world of free, clean, and abundant energy. It’s also probably our best near term shot at achieving a net-zero carbon economy. 

Chris Sacca – The race to Q>1

Technicians and engineers performing repairs inside the chamber where the target capsule of deuterium and tritium is hit by 192 lasers, igniting nuclear fusion. [Photo: US Department of Energy]

From the International Energy Agency

Renewables become the largest source of global electricity generation by early 2025, surpassing coal. Their share of the power mix is forecast to increase by 10 percentage points over the forecast period, reaching 38% in 2027. Renewables are the only electricity generation source whose share is expected to grow, with declining shares for coal, natural gas, nuclear and oil generation. Electricity from wind and solar PV more than doubles in the next five years, providing almost 20% of global power generation in 2027.

EA, Share of cumulative power capacity by technology, 2010-2027, IEA, Paris, IEA. Licence: CC BY 4.0

Commercializing and scaling nuclear fusion is likely at least a decade or so out, and in the meantime, we’ll be relying on renewable energy to get us to a cleaner energy economy. The IEA issued a report forecasting that renewables will be the largest source of electricity globally by 2025. This latest report reflects an upwards revision on renewables, which are growing share much faster than expected just even a year ago.

Driving this change is faster than expected adoption of renewables from China, the EU, the US, and India which are all quickly implementing and introducing policies in reaction to the energy crisis. The other major drivers are solar (which, thanks to learning curves, has become an economically feasible energy source in the last few years) and wind (which is expected to grow more linearly over the coming years).

It’s tough to look at both the nuclear fusion breakthrough and the IEA renewables report and not be optimistic that we may just figure out this whole energy/climate thing sooner than most people would have thought just a few years ago. But there’s still a lot of work to be done.