The Financial Times reported Sunday that scientists in the California-based Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) had achieved a “net energy gain” from an experimental fusion reactor.
That would represent the first time that researchers have successfully produced more energy in a fusion reaction — the same type that powers the Sun — than was consumed during the process, a potentially major step in the pursuit of zero-carbon power.
Energy Department and LLNL spokespeople told AFP they could not comment or provide confirmation regarding the FT report, but said US Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm would “announce a major scientific breakthrough” on Tuesday.
The LLNL spokesperson added that their “analysis is still ongoing” [“U.S. Teases ‘Major’ Science News Amid Fusion Energy Reports,” VOA News, 2022.12.12].
Nuclear fusion—mashing together hydrogen atoms to make helium and energy—beats the pants off nuclear fission—splitting uranium or plutonium atoms—and other conventional energy sources for multiple reasons:
- Fusion produces four times as much energy as fission and four million times as much energy as chemical reactions (e.g., burning coal, oil, gas…). A tank of hydrogen that would fit in your pickup truck would provide more energy than two weeks’ worth of Keystone pipeline oil.
- Fusion doesn’t emit greenhouse gases; it emits helium, which is fun, useful, and inert.
- Fusion produces no long-term radioactive waste.
- Fusion doesn’t use nuclear fuel that terrorists can swipe to make fission bombs or dirty bombs.
- Fusion reactors won’t melt down. If the power goes out or something else goes wrong, a fusion reactor just shuts down. Even if the Russkies bomb a fusion reactor, we won’t get a Chernobyl-style plume of radioactive death spreading across the continent.
President Joe Biden recognizes the advantages we could get from fusion power:
The US breakthrough comes as the world wrestles with high energy prices and the need to rapidly move away from burning fossil fuels to stop average global temperatures reaching dangerous levels. Through the Inflation Reduction Act, the Biden administration is ploughing almost $370bn into new subsidies for low-carbon energy in an effort to slash emissions and win a global race for next-generation clean tech [Tom Wilson, “Fusion Energy Breakthrough by US Scientists Boosts Clean Power Hopes,” Financial Times, 2022.12.11].
Keep your ears open for tomorrow’s press conference from Secretary Granholm!