Menu Menu

Scientists have made a huge nuclear fusion breakthrough

In the quest to unlock a ‘near-limitless, safe, clean’ source of energy, researchers in the US have reportedly succeeded in sparking a fusion reaction that created more energy than it consumed.

According to the Financial Times, US government scientists have made a breakthrough in the pursuit of limitless, zero-carbon power by achieving a net energy gain in a fusion reaction for the first time.

They did so using the same nuclear processes that fuel the Sun and other stars, which involves smashing together light elements like hydrogen to form heavier ones.

This releases a huge burst of energy and, on this occasion, it seems as though more was created (2.5 megajoules) than was consumed (just 2.1 megajoules).

The approach, which has been hailed as having significant potential as a sustainable energy source and a reliable, abundant alternative to fossil fuels, is extremely promising in the race to meet our 2050 net zero targets.

Dubbed the ‘holy grail’ of energy production, nuclear fusion has been touted as the key to revolutionising the sector for decades as it doesn’t damage the atmosphere, leaves no harmful carbon emissions or radioactive waste behind, and can generate ten million times the energy of burning fossil fuels.

Harnessing it, however, has proved no easy feat. Since the 1950s, researchers have spent copious amounts of time, money, and resources trying to demonstrate a positive energy gain – to no avail.

Until now of course, which is why news that the National Ignition Facility (NIF) at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California has apparently brought this futuristic vision one step closer to reality is garnering so much attention.

The major milestone comes as the world wrestles with high energy prices and the urgent need to rapidly move away from burning fossil fuels to stop average global temperatures reaching dangerous levels.

‘This seminal result 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,’ says Dr Robbie Scott of the Science and Technology Facilities Council’s (STFC) Central Laser Facility (CLF) Plasma Physics Group, who contributed to the research.

‘The experiment demonstrates unambiguously that the physics of Laser Fusion works. In order to transform NIF’s result into power production a lot of work remains, but this is a key step along the path.’

As Scott mentions – and as experts have stressed – while the results are an important proof of principle, the technology is still a long way from being a mainstay of the energy landscape.

‘To turn fusion into a power source we’ll need to boost the energy gain still further,’ says Jeremy Chittenden, professor of plasma physics at Imperial College London.

‘We’ll also need 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.’

So, before we get ahead of ourselves and start considering the climate crisis resolved, we’ll have to wait and see whether this eventually becomes effective at doing more than simply boiling a kettle.