|Back in June, we made a deep dive into nuclear fusion, explaining that fusion is based on the idea that energy can be released by forcing atomic nuclei together rather than separating them, basically the opposite reaction of fission. Our sun for instance is generating power through a hyperscale fusion reaction. But on Earth, this reaction is difficult to reproduce because two atomic nuclei naturally repel each other.
Mastering the fusion reaction would give access to energy resources in tremendous quantities and would produce much less nuclear waste (negligible amounts) than fission. Fusion could then have major consequences on the energy industry in the long run and make fossil fuel as well as standard renewables obsolete, explaining why it’s important to keep an eye on the technology developments. It could also give a boost to emerging industries such as space exploration by bringing new fuel efficiencies and allowing journeys to Mars.
After some bad news just released from the director of the world’s largest fusion experiment (International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor, or ITER) about new delays and significant cost overruns, it seems that a competing project based in the US was able to generate a fusion reaction with a net-positive energy balance.
This amazing news, that is expected to be scientifically proved and detailed today, is a historical breakthrough and represents the holy grail for all the researchers involved in fusion power for more than five decades.
When we published our report on nuclear fusion in June of this year, we were very far from thinking that any ongoing project/experiment would be able to demonstrate a positive energy efficiency (known as the Lawson criterion and denominated by the symbol Q) in such a short time frame. In fact, back then, the highest Q ever reached was 0.7 in August 2021, meaning that with an input of 100% of energy the fusion reactor could deliver only a 70% energy output.
To trigger a fusion reaction, the (electric) energy needs are colossal. First of all, the material used in the reaction, usually hydrogen isotopes, must be heated at extreme temperatures reaching more than 150 million degrees Celsius. The only way to achieve this is to bombard the “fuel” used for the fusion reaction with extremely powerful lasers. The National Ignition Facility (NIF) at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California used 200 of those lasers to produce a net-positive energy fusion reaction with a Q of 1.2.
Second, since absolutely no material is able to contain the resulting plasma (the hydrogen isotopes heated at 150 million degrees Celsius) without literally and immediately evaporating, a very strong magnetic field must be created to confine the plasma into levitation. Here again, the electric energy needs are phenomenal to power the needed super magnets.
As mentioned above, the NIF will release its experiment figures today, numbers that will be obviously dissected by the scientific community around the world. Even if a laboratory was finally able to realize a fusion reaction with a Q above 1, the commercialization and common use of this energy source is still decades away.
This breakthrough is nevertheless the proof that the research efforts are heading towards the right direction and that further improvements in alloys for super magnets as well as superconductivity will enable the adoption of this abundant and clean energy source in the future.