US announces nuclear fusion breakthrough, converting hydrogen into helium

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WASHINGTON, 14 Dec 2022:

The US government yesterday announced its scientists conducted a controlled nuclear fusion reaction experiment that yielded net positive energy – a breakthrough that raises hopes for less costly and more environmentally friendly energy production in the future.

“We’re just getting started,” US energy secretary Jennifer Granholm said at a press conference alongside scientists and other government officials, including the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy director Arati Prabhakar.

The Dec 5 experiment at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California used 2.05 megajoules of laser energy to trigger the reaction and achieved output of 3.15 megajoules of fusion energy – marking the first time that more energy was produced from nuclear fusion than what was employed in the process.

National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) administrator Jill Hruby said – in reference to the net energy gain – that it was “an important day in science.”

“Reaching ignition in a controlled fusion experiment is an achievement that has come after more than 60 years of global research, development, engineering and experimentation.”

She explained that scientists reached that milestone by using 192 laser beams to heat a peppercorn-sized cylindrical target known as a hohlraum to some 3 million°C (5.4 million°F).

That high heat in turn generated an implosion of X-rays that fused hydrogen isotopes located in a small capsule inside the hohlraum into helium.

Hruby said of the experiment that it briefly simulated the conditions of a star and achieved ignition.

The California laboratory director Kim Budil however said “very significant hurdles” remain in terms of achieving commercially viable nuclear fusion power plants, “not just in the science but in technology”.

“This is one igniting capsule at one time,” Budil said of the experiment. “To realise commercial fusion energy, you have to … be able to produce many, many fusion ignition events per minute and you have to have a robust system of drivers to enable that.”

In that regard, she said commercialisation of this technology is decades away.

“With concerted effort and investment, a few decades of research on the underlying technologies could put us in a position to build a power plant,” Budil said.

For his part, the NNSA’s deputy administrator for defence programmes, Marvin Adams, recalled that nuclear fusion is an “essential process in modern nuclear weapons” and has the potential for abundant clean energy.

– EFE, Image courtesy of Robert Couse-Baker