The United States Department of Energy (DOE) recently announced that researchers at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) have made a major nuclear energy breakthrough. For the first time in human history, scientists were able to achieve fusion ignition, an enormous hurdle in the efforts to develop a truly clean, abundant, and renewable energy source.
Nuclear fusion, in the simplest terms, is when two atoms combine and create a heavier atom. Through this process, a massive amount of energy is created in the form of heat, without greenhouse gas emissions, radioactive waste, or the use of fossil fuels.
The process of nuclear fusion has been understood theoretically for more than a century. It is the process by which stars are powered. The energy emitted from stars, like our sun, as a result of this process is what creates the conditions that make life possible on earth. Though the energy generated by nuclear fusion from the sun is literally ubiquitous, catalyzing the process in a laboratory setting has evaded scientists in the 60 years of a concerted effort to find a solution.
On Dec. 5, however, a breakthrough was made. Scientists at the LLNL utilized 192 lasers to induce fusion between two atoms, also called ignition, and observed a net increase in energy as a result. That is, more energy was created from the fusion than necessary to induce the reaction. The feat was called a “landmark achievement” and a “milestone that will undoubtedly spark even more discovery” by U.S. Secretary of Energy Jennifer M. Granholm. Director of the LLNL, Dr. Kim Budil, called the effort to induce fusion “one of the most significant scientific challenges ever tackled by humanity,” and said that achieving it is “a triumph of science, engineering, and most of all, people”.
The implications of the discovery outside of the laboratory could be paradigm-shifting for both the energy and national security sectors. However, it will likely be decades before the process can be commercialized, made cost-effective, and implemented in the real world. Nonetheless, it is a monumental feat of human achievement and a leap forward for humanity.
(Photo Credit: Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory)