US says scientists make breakthrough in nuclear fusion energy

CALIFORNIA – Scientists in California have made a breakthrough in nuclear fusion technology, producing more energy than consumed in a reaction for the first time.

The achievement was made at the US Department of Energy’s Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory near San Francisco, according to a person familiar with the research, who requested anonymity to discuss results that have not yet been disclosed fully in public.

Lasers were used to bombard hydrogen isotopes held in a superheated plasma state in order to fuse them into helium, releasing a neutron and carbon-free clean energy in the process.

Scientists have been experimenting with the technology for decades, but getting the process to produce more energy than it consumes has been elusive. 

The Department of Energy didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

The reaction produced about 2.5 megajoules of energy compared to the 2.1 megajoules used to power the lasers, according to the Financial Times, which earlier reported the results.

While the results represent a breakthrough, it’s still a long way to creating a viable technology, let alone delivering enough clean energy to help wean the world off fossil fuels and limit climate change.

Nuclear fission technology, which splits atoms and creates highly radioactive waste, has been commercial for decades and still produces only 10 per cent of the world’s power, far less than coal and gas.

Fusion’s potential market share will also be challenged by solar and wind power, both of which are cheaper and have mature supply chains. Their main drawback – intermittent generation – is being addressed by a rapidly growing battery storage industry. 

Still, if fusion can be scaled up, it offers the promise of around-the-clock clean power with less risk and hazardous waste than fission. Investment into fusion startups like Commonwealth Fusion Systems and Helion Energy jumped to US$2.3 billion (S$3.1 billion) in 2021 and will likely total more than US$1 billion this year, according to BloombergNEF.

The Energy Department previously said Secretary Jennifer Granholm planned to announce on Tuesday a “major scientific breakthrough” at the national laboratory accomplished by researchers with the department’s National Nuclear Security Administration. BLOOMBERG

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