Scientists make major fusion energy breakthrough

Researchers have reported for the first time a net energy gain — as they generate more energy in the fusion reaction than was used to ignite it.

WASHINGTON — Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm is set to announce a “major scientific breakthrough” on Tuesday in a decades-long quest to harness fusion, the energy that powers the sun and other fossil fuels. why.

According to a government official and a scientist familiar with the study, researchers at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California have for the first time generated more energy in a fusion reaction than the energy produced by a fusion reaction. used to ignite it, the so-called net energy gain. Both spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the breakthrough before the announcement.

Granholm was scheduled to appear with Livermore researchers at a morning event in Washington. The Department of Energy declined to provide details ahead of time. The news was first reported by the Financial Times.

Proponents of fusion hope that it could one day produce near-infinite, carbon-free energy, displacing fossil fuels and other traditional energy sources. Production of the energy that powers homes and businesses from fusion is still decades away. But it’s an important step nonetheless, the researchers say.

“It’s almost like gunfire,” said Professor Dennis Whyte, director of the Center for Fusion and Plasma Science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a leader in fusion research. “We should promote the delivery of fusion energy systems to address climate change and energy security.”

Net energy gain is an elusive goal because fusion occurs at such high temperatures and pressures that it is extremely difficult to control.

Fusion works by squeezing hydrogen atoms together with such force that they combine to form helium, releasing huge amounts of energy and heat. Unlike other nuclear reactions, it does not produce radioactive waste.

Billions of dollars and decades of work have been poured into fusion research that has produced amazing results — in a split second. Previously, researchers at the National Ignition Facility, the part of Lawrence Livermore, where the success took place, used 192 lasers and temperatures many times hotter than the center of the sun to create a reflection. extremely short fusion reactions.

The laser beams focus a huge amount of heat into a small metal box. The result is a superheated plasma environment where fusion can take place.

Riccardo Betti, a professor at the University of Rochester and an expert in laser fusion, said an announcement that the net energy gained in the fusion reaction would be important. But he says there is a long way to go before sustainable electricity generation results.

He likened this breakthrough to the first time people learned that refining oil into gasoline and burning it could create an explosion.

“You still don’t have the engine and you still don’t have the tires,” Betti said. “You can’t say you have a car.”

The net energy gain applies to the fusion reaction itself, not the total amount of electricity required to run the lasers and run the project. For fusion to survive, it would need to generate significantly more energy and for a longer time.

The physical control of the stars is extremely difficult. Whyte says it’s difficult to get 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. He says containing it is an incredible challenge.

According to Jeremy Chittenden, a professor at Imperial College in London specializing in plasma physics, the net energy gain is not a big surprise for the California lab because of the advances it has made.

“That doesn’t take away from the fact that this is an important milestone,” he said.

It takes a lot of resources and effort to advance fusion research. One method turns hydrogen into plasma, a charged gas, which is then driven by giant magnets. The method is being explored in France with a collaboration between 35 countries known as the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor as well as by researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a private company.

Last year, groups working on those projects on two continents announced significant advances in key magnets needed for their work.

Mathew Daly reports from Washington. Maddie Burakoff reports from New York, Michael Phillis from St. Louis and Jennifer McDermott from Providence, RI Scientists make major fusion energy breakthrough

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