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California Lab Achieves Major Breakthrough in Race for Limitless Clean Energy

Researchers achieve “net energy gain” for the first time in nuclear history.

An artist's rendering of the nuclear fusion process: a hydrogen-fuel pellet with laser beams entering it.
Credit: rawpixel/US Department of Energy

On Tuesday, the US Department of Energy announced a major milestone in its decades-long research toward nuclear energy. A California lab achieved “net energy gain” for the first time in history.

“Net energy gain” means that, for the first time ever, nuclear fusion produced more energy than scientists used to power the experiment. Nuclear fusion occurs when two or more atoms are fused together. This process often generates massive amounts of energy in the form of heat, but never before has the output exceeded the energy input.

2.05 megajoules of energy were invested in the experiment, and 3.15 megajoules of fusion energy were generated––an increase of over 50%.

Sandia Labs (Albuquerque, NM) physicist examines coils that reduce plasma instabilities in their effort to achieve controlled nuclear fusion. Credit: Flickr/Randy Montoya

This major success occurred in California, at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory’s National Ignition Facility. The facility is roughly the size of a major football stadium and boasts 192 lasers.

Alex Padilla, U.S. Senator for California, remarked, “This monumental scientific breakthrough is a milestone for the future of clean energy”

“Ignition allows us to replicate, for the first time, certain conditions that are only found in the stars and sun,” Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm commented on Tuesday. “The milestone moves us one significant step closer to the possibility of zero-carbon, abundant fusion energy powering our society.”

“If we can advance fusion energy,” Granholm postulated, “we could use it to produce clean electricity, transportation fuels, power, heavy industry and so much more.”

Nuclear fusion occurs when two atoms are fused together. Credit: Shutterstock/adison pangchai

The National Ignition Facility studies “thermonuclear inertial fusion” and resulting nuclear energy production. Thermonuclear inertial fusion involves shooting a series of hydrogen-fuel pellets into the range of the campus’ 192 lasers.

This results in a series of explosions, roughly 50 per second, contained by the surrounding lasers. The explosions are energy released from the neutrons and alpha particles. They provide energy in the form of heat.

The energy produced in California, while ground-breaking, is hardly enough to warm a short shower, though, let alone enough to power an entire city.

“It’s about what it takes to boil 10 kettles of water,” or about 2.5 gallons of water, Jeremy Chittenden explains. Chittenden is the co-director of the Centre for Inertial Fusion Studies at Imperial College in London. “In order to turn that into a power station, we need to make a larger gain in energy––we need it to be substantially more.”

MIT’s Alcator C-Mod, also called a tokamak, was the world’s leading nuclear fusion device until 2016. Credit: Robert Mumgaard

Kim Budil, director of Lawrence Livermore’s National Laboratory, cautioned people that nuclear fusion won’t be a viable option for commercial use for “a few more decades.” But the experiment results are still worth excitement.

“I think it’s [nuclear energy] moving into the foreground and probably 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. With real investment and real focus, that timescale can move closer,” Budil explained.

Interested in reading more about the future of climate and clean energy science? Click here to read about COP27, the UN conference on climate policies, and the young people that took the conference by storm.

Written By

Makenna Dykstra (she/her) is currently pursuing her M.A. in English Literature at Tulane University in New Orleans. She writes journalism and poetry.

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