Fusion energy, the process that powers the sun and stars, has long been viewed as the “holy grail” of energy production, with the promise to produce immense amounts of clean energy, but has long proved elusive for researchers and developers, especially getting at least as much, if not more, energy out of the reaction than went in to making it—what is known as “breakeven” fusion.
As announced today by DOE, on December 5, a team at LLNL’s NIF conducted the first controlled fusion experiment in history to reach a scientific energy breakeven. According to DOE’s official announcement, this breakthrough is decades in the making and marks a massive milestone in paving the way for advancements in national defense and the future of clean power.
As we have explained in previous posts, fusion has the potential to provide an essentially limitless supply of clean, safe, cheap energy. Fusion devices share many common traits which would make them an ideal source of baseload electricity. For example, they are carbon free and could provide immense amount of electricity. They are compact, do not use uranium or create high level nuclear waste, and they are able to turn off/on demand. Fusion is fueled by an abundant isotope of hydrogen, which keeps fuel accessible and enables energy security for all. With recent technology advancements and an incredible infusion of capital (over $4 billion), fusion companies are promising to deliver electricity to the grid by the start of the next decade, if not sooner. Indeed, at least one venture has announced a goal to demonstrate “net electricity” by 2024-2025.
Unlike fission, which splits atoms apart, fusion is the process of producing electricity by bringing (or fusing) atoms together, which produces massive amounts of energy. This reaction occurs every day to power the sun and stars, which generally fuse around 500 tons of hydrogen atoms every second. Replicating this reaction on Earth may mean we could create a supply of unlimited clean energy. And the result of the latest NIF experiment is a big step in a long quest to develop an infinite source of clean energy to help end dependence on fossil fuels and provide an affordable electricity source.
This new scientific advance involved NIF using giant lasers to create conditions that briefly mimic nuclear explosions to create energy from what’s known as “thermonuclear inertial fusion,” whereby scientists fired hydrogen-fueled pellets into a collection of nearly 200 lasers, creating a series of extremely fast, repeated explosions at the rate of 50 times per second. The energy collected from the neutrons and alpha particles is extracted as heat, and that heat holds the key to producing energy. While the results are a significant milestone in a scientific endeavor developing since at least the 1930s, for fusion to be viable at a commercial level, the ratio of energy going into the reaction will need to be greater to produce significantly more power and for longer.
Fusion has seen significant advancements in the past couple of years in terms of technological milestones, private capital investments, and commercial development. This past March, the White House held a summit on the “Developing a Bold Decadal Vision for Commercial Fusion Energy,” to bring electrons from fusion devices to the grid within a decade. Post author Amy Roma, a speaker at the White House event, explained at the time:
We’re looking at one of the biggest problem-solving challenges that society has ever faced, and that’s decarbonization and climate change. Currently the majority of power around the world is generated overwhelmingly from fossil fuels. At the same time where we have to decarbonize the existing power supply that we have, there are nearly a billion people in the world that don’t have access to electricity. We have a huge opportunity here with fusion, if it can be clean, reliable, and affordable, to be a transformative energy source to combat climate change and provide clean energy to the nearly one billion people who don’t have access to electricity right now.
We have also discussed other aspects about commercializing fusion in a number of past papers and posts, including discussing the regulatory framework needed to support the developing fusion industry in a paper titled The Regulation of Fusion - A Practical and Innovation-Friendly Approach, two papers presented at the International Atomic Energy Agency on the Regulation of Fusion—and Innovation Friendly Approach and Nuclear Fission and Fusion Power in Space, another post on fusion and space, a summary of the NRC’s evaluation of the regulatory framework for fusion, a summary of a recent Senate letter to the NRC on fusion, and we have a draft paper undergoing peer review on Nonproliferation and Fusion Power Plants.
While much more needs to be done to realize commercial fusion, the NIF development is a significant step forward for fusion.
For more information about fusion, please contact Amy Roma, Partner, or Stephanie Fishman, Associate.