(Bloomberg) — After more than 50 years of false starts, nuclear fusion is finally taking a resolute step closer to becoming the world’s newest energy source.
The US Department of Energy on Tuesday is slated to announce that scientists at a laboratory in California managed for the first time to generate more electricity from a fusion reactor than they needed to trigger it. The historic breakthrough raises the prospect that someday — perhaps decades from now — the global economy will be run on carbon-free electricity generated by the very process that powers the sun and stars.
It’s a stunning moment for a technology that has failed for nearly half a century, and it comes as leaders of the world’s 10 biggest economies — and dozens of smaller countries — have pledged to transition to clean energy sources. But fusion is unlikely to help boost faltering progress towards net-zero emissions, at least not without work that most experts think will take decades of additional development. That means this historic breakthrough probably won’t help displace traditional fossil fuels at a moment when the world is facing an entrenched energy supply crunch and greenhouse gas levels are still rising.
“We have to take a positive but skeptical approach,” said Andrew Sowder, a senior technical executive at the independent, non-profit EPRI, formerly known as Electric Power Research Institute. “You are going to have to demonstrate you can take the energy and turn it into something useful.”
Power Source of Stars
Fusion energy is produced by melding together atoms and is the power source of stars, whose immense gravity crushes together atoms of hydrogen to form helium. With fusion, there’s no long-lived radioactive waste — that’s a stark contrast to the fission technology currently used at nuclear reactors to generate electricity.
Researchers at the Energy Department’s Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory used lasers to bombard hydrogen isotopes held in a superheated plasma state in order to fuse them into helium, releasing a neutron and carbon-free energy in the process.
The reaction produced about 2.5 megajoules of energy compared with the 2.1 megajoules used to power the lasers, a net energy gain the scientists have been trying for decades to achieve.
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To move this technology out of the lab, a fusion system would need to be affordable and easy to build. However, the Lawrence Livermore test uses some of the most-powerful lasers ever built: They’re big, costly and not readily available for mass deployment. That would make it difficult to convert this technical accomplishment into a successful business.
“The fact that you have net energy gain does not mean you’ll have a commercial device on the market,” said Chris Gadomski, head nuclear analyst for BloombergNEF. “Yes, we have fusion, but at what cost?”
Still, the announcement should unleash funding and support for a civilian technology development program, said Stephen Dean, president of Fusion Power Associates, a non-profit public benefit corporation.
Startups including Commonwealth Fusion Systems LLC and Helion Energy Inc. attracted $2.3 billion in support in 2021, and backers will likely direct more than $1 billion to the field this year, according to BloombergNEF. Other notable companies include Marvel Fusion, TAE Technologies, General Fusion, Tokamak Energy and Zap Energy.
—With assistance from Will Wade.