The history of nuclear fusion began early in the 20th century as a question about how the sun and stars power themselves and expanded into questions about the nature of energy and matter. Then questions turned to applications for producing energy, propelling rockets and winning wars.
To sell the idea, stakeholders hyped nuclear fusion as the promise of using the process that powers the sun and the stars to create unlimited energy for mankind.
One hundred years later, news headlines around the world are proclaiming that the promise of nuclear fusion has made a breakthrough from an imaginary promise, or spook, to a reality.
The way the U.S. Department of Energy explains it, in a fusion reaction, two hydrogen or light atoms merge with tremendous force to form a single heavier atom. The process releases energy because the total mass of the resulting single atom is less than the mass of the two original ones. The leftover mass becomes energy.
By contrast, nuclear fusion’s cousin, nuclear fission, produces atomic bombs — weapons of mass destruction that use power released by splitting atoms.
Of all the researchers working on nuclear fusion technology in multiple countries, no group has been able to produce more energy from the reaction than it consumes. A milestone known as net energy gain or target gain would help prove the process could provide a reliable, abundant alternative to fossil fuels and conventional nuclear energy.
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In December 2022, U.S. government scientists said they made a breakthrough in the pursuit of limitless, zero-carbon power by achieving a net energy gain in a fusion reaction for the first time.
The National Ignition Facility (NIF) at the federal Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California is a $3.5 billion facility designed to replicate the sun’s atom-smashing reactions. It uses a process called inertial confinement fusion that bombards a tiny pellet of hydrogen plasma with the world’s largest lasers.
On Dec. 5, after trying for decades, scientists at the NIF said they achieved net energy gain in a fusion experiment — an important step toward the long sought-after goal of generating almost unlimited power from clean, plentiful fusion energy.
More specifically, “the reaction created 3.15 megajoules of energy when a mere 2.05 went in—a glorious 150 percent return on investment,” wrote Virginia Heffernan, a Wired contributor and the author of “Magic and Loss: The Internet as Art.”
Many scientists believe fusion power stations are still decades away but if the hype is true, fusion reactions will emit no carbon, produce no long-lived radioactive waste and a small cup of the hydrogen fuel could theoretically power a house for hundreds of years, Tom Wilson wrote for Financial Times. In an accompanying tweet on Dec. 11, Wilson described “a massive breakthrough with revolutionary potential for clean power” in what he said was a “scoop.”
The U.S. Department of Energy brought an external team of scientists to confirm the NIF findings. “This is a landmark achievement for the researchers and staff at the National Ignition Facility,” said Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm in a press release. “This milestone will undoubtedly spark even more discovery.”
Heffernan cautioned against over-optimism.
“It’s always good to keep your wits about you when it comes to fusion promises,” she wrote. “Whenever both paradise and vast riches are at hand, fraudsters make their move.” She provided an example of earlier claims by a couple of chemists in 1989 who said they’d “established a sustained nuclear fusion reaction.” The chemists were accused of faking it.