WASHINGTON (AP) — Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm is set to announce Tuesday a “scientific breakthrough” in the decades-long quest to harness fusion, the energy that powers the sun and stars.
For the first time, researchers at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California produced more energy in a fusion reaction than was used to ignite it, called a net energy gain, according to a government official and a scientist familiar with the research. Both spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the trailer ahead of the announcement.
Granholm was scheduled to appear alongside Livermore investigators at a morning event in Washington. The Department of Energy declined to give details ahead of time. The news was first reported by the Financial Times.
Fusion advocates hope that one day it can produce nearly unlimited, carbon-free energy, displacing fossil fuels and other traditional energy sources. Producing energy to power homes and businesses from meltdown is still decades away. But the researchers said it was a significant step nonetheless.
“It’s almost like the starting gun is going off,” said Professor Dennis Whyte, director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Plasma Science and Fusion Center and a leader in fusion research. “We should push to make fusion power systems available to address climate change and energy security.”
The net energy gain has been an elusive goal because fusion occurs at such high temperatures and pressures that it is incredibly difficult to control.
Fusion works by pressing hydrogen atoms together with such force that they combine into helium, releasing enormous amounts of energy and heat. Unlike other nuclear reactions, it does not generate radioactive waste.
Billions of dollars and decades of work have been invested in fusion research that has produced exhilarating results, by fractions of a second. Previously, researchers at the National Ignition Facility, the Lawrence Livermore division where the success took place, used 192 lasers and temperatures several times hotter than the center of the sun to create an extremely brief fusion reaction.
Lasers concentrate an enormous amount of heat into a small metal can. The result is a superheated plasma environment where fusion can occur.
Riccardo Betti, a professor at the University of Rochester and an expert in laser fusion, said an announcement that net energy has been gained in a fusion reaction would be significant. But he said there is a long way to go before the result generates sustainable electricity.
He likened the breakthrough to when humans first learned that refining oil into gasoline and igniting it could cause an explosion.
“You don’t have the engine yet and you don’t have the tires yet,” Betti said. “You can’t say you have a car.”
The net energy gain achievement was applied to the fusion reaction itself, not the total amount of energy it took to operate the lasers and run the project. For fusion to be viable, it will need to produce a lot more power and for a longer time.
It is incredibly difficult to control the physics of stars. Whyte said it’s been a challenge getting to this point because the fuel has to be hotter than the center of the sun. The fuel doesn’t want to stay hot, it wants to leak out and cool down. Containing it is an incredible challenge, he said.
The net energy gain is not a big surprise to the California lab given the progress it had already made, according to Jeremy Chittenden, a professor at Imperial College London who specializes in plasma physics.
“That doesn’t take away from the fact that this is an important milestone,” he said.
Huge resources and efforts are needed to advance fusion research. One approach converts hydrogen into plasma, an electrically charged gas, which is then controlled by huge magnets. This method is being explored in France in a 35-country collaboration called the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor, as well as by researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a private company.
Last year teams working on those projects on two continents announced significant advances in the vital magnets needed for their work
Mathew Daly reported from Washington. Maddie Burakoff reported from New York, Michael Phillis from St. Louis and Jennifer McDermott from Providence, Rhode Island.
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