US scientists unveiled a breakthrough on Tuesday in the use of fusion power that, if it makes the leap from laboratories to commercial electricity generation in the coming decades, could contribute to the fight to curb climate change.
Scientists at California’s Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory achieved a net gain of energy in a laser fusion experiment for the first time and briefly on Dec. 5, the US Department of Energy reported.
The scientists focused a laser on a fuel target to fuse two light atoms into a denser one, releasing energy.
Kimberly Budil, a director at Lawrence Livermore, told reporters at an Energy Department event that scientific and technological hurdles mean commercialization is probably not five or six decades away, but sooner.
“With concerted effort and investment, a few decades of research into the underlying technologies could put us in a position to build a power plant,” Budil said.
Scientists have known for a century that fusion is the energy of the Sun and have been trying to develop it on Earth for decades.
Arati Prabhakar, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, said the experiment represents a “tremendous example of what perseverance can accomplish.”
Nuclear scientists outside the lab say the achievement will be a big step forward, but there is still a lot to experiment with before fusion is commercially viable.
Tony Roulstone, a nuclear power expert at Cambridge University, estimated that the energy produced by the experiment was only 0.5% of that needed to turn on the lasers in the first place.
“Therefore, we can say that this result … is a success of science, but still a long way from providing useful, abundant and clean energy,” Roulstone said.
The electricity industry welcomed the step with caution, although it stressed that, in order to carry out the energy transition, fusion should not stop efforts to build other alternatives such as solar and wind energy, battery storage and nuclear fission.
“It’s the first step of saying ‘Yeah, this is not just fantasy, this can be done, in theory,'” said Andrew Sowder, a senior technology executive at EPRI, a nonprofit energy research and development group. .