The U.S. Department of Energy and scientists at the National Ignition Facility (NIF) at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory are expected to deliver a big announcement related to nuclear fusion. It appears that the NIF has finally created nuclear fusion ignition, producing more energy than is put in by the lasers.
The news of the successful experiment was broken by the Financial Times (FT). They reported that “a major scientific breakthrough” took place. The fusion reactor appears to have produced 120 percent of the energy used by the laser to achieve fusion. That 20 percent might not seem much, but it is a revolutionary result if confirmed.
“Initial diagnostic data suggests another successful experiment at the [NIF]. However, the exact yield is still being determined and we can’t confirm that it is over the threshold at this time,” the laboratory told FT. “That analysis is in process, so publishing the information...before that process is complete would be inaccurate.”
The NIF approaches nuclear fusion in a different way from the reactors being built in Europe and Asia. It is a big facility, the size of three football fields, but the exciting part happens in an area the size of a human hair. Lasers are shot at this very small target where hydrogen is placed in a pellet, and it is heated so fast that it fuses, releasing 10 quadrillion watts of fusion power for 100 trillionths of a second.
Nuclear fusion is what powers stars. Unlike traditional nuclear power plants, this approach doesn’t produce heaps of nuclear waste to be buried, and unlike fossil fuel plants, it doesn’t emit greenhouse gases. Nuclear fusion alongside renewables could be a crucial way to power our world as we stop using fossil fuels.
That said, even if the data is confirmed, a nuclear fusion power station is not around the corner. But if the NIF shows it is possible, then it will be just a matter of building it.