Since the dawn of fusion research in the 1950s, scientists have pinned high hopes on this technology to produce clean and abundant energy in the future. But fusion research struggled with some seemingly insurmountable hurdles on the way to commercial use. One of those hurdles has now been overcome.
American researchers at the National Ignition Facility (NIF) have succeeded, for the first time, in producing more energy than was needed to carry out the experiment, a process referred to as ‘ignition.’ According to a report in the Financial Times, the latest experiments produced an energy output of 2.5 MJ, with an investment of just 2.1 MJ to heat the fuel with lasers.
“Fusion has the potential to provide a near-limitless, safe, clean, source of carbon-free baseload energy,” said Robbie Scott of the Science and Technology Facilities Council’s Central Laser Facility Plasma Physics Group. “This seminal result from the National Ignition Facility is the first laboratory demonstration of fusion ‘energy-gain’—where more fusion energy is output than input by the laser beams. The scale of the breakthrough for laser fusion research cannot be overstated.”
According to Scott, “the experiment demonstrates unambiguously that the physics of Laser Fusion works.” He did admit, however, that “a lot of work remains” to transform this result into power production.
This was confirmed by Jeremy Chittenden, co-director of the Centre for Inertial Fusion Studies at Imperial College in London. The amount of energy created in the experiment was “about what it takes to boil 10 kettles of water,” he said. “In order to turn that into a power station, we need to make a larger gain in energy—we need it to be substantially more.”
Nevertheless, Chittenden was elated about the breakthrough. “If what has been reported is true and more energy has been released than was used to produce the plasma, that is a true breakthrough moment which is tremendously exciting,” Chittenden said, adding that “it proves that the long sought-after goal, the ‘holy grail’ of fusion, can indeed be achieved.”
The next steps, according to Chittenden, would have to be to “find a way to reproduce the same effect much more frequently and much more cheaply before we can realistically turn this into a power plant.” This notion was also supported by Justin Wark, professor of physics at the University of Oxford, who pointed out that while the laboratory of the NIF could produce such a result once a day, a fusion power plant would need to do it 10 times a second.
Taking all this into account, commercially viable fusion power plants might still be decades away. Still, the latest findings prove once again, that these technological hurdles can be overcome, given enough time and resources. Given the promise of fusion technology, of near limitless, clean energy, this should be considered time and resources well spent.