Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory’s National Ignition Facility conducted a nuclear fusion ignition test on December 5th, 2022. The results of this test could have huge potential for the future of clean energy. This morning, officials from the United States Department of Energy have confirmed it was a successful nuclear fusion ignition test.
The facility has been experimenting with nuclear fusion for over a decade, carrying on the work of scientists who attempted to fuse atoms together; a process that generates a massive amount of energy as heat. You might recognize this as the process the sun uses to heat our solar system. Or what Dr. Octavius tried to harness in “Spider-Man 2.” Unlike previous tests, this latest ignition test may have finally produced more energy than it used.
So, what’s the big deal?
Nuclear fusion has the potential to create limitless, carbon-free energy, without creating the amount of waste created by current nuclear reactors. Fusion projects mainly use the elements deuterium and tritium – both of which are isotopes of hydrogen. The amount of deuterium present in a glass of water, with a little tritium added, could power a house for a year. Tritium is rarer and more challenging to obtain, although it can be synthetically made. As we have talked about before, these elements do create radioactive isotopes, but far fewer than our current methods.
The other benefit of these elements is that you don’t need very much of them. “Unlike coal, you only need a small amount of hydrogen, and it is the most abundant thing found in the universe,” Julio Friedmann, chief scientist at Carbon Direct and a former chief energy technologist at Lawrence Livermore, says. “Hydrogen is found in water so the stuff that generates this energy is wildly unlimited and it is clean.”
Ok, what now?
Scientists need to confirm that their initial readings are actually correct. “This is very important because from an energy perspective, [but] it can’t be an energy source if you’re not getting out more energy than you’re putting in,” Friedmann notes. “Prior breakthroughs have been important but it’s not the same thing as generating energy that could one day be used on a larger scale.”
Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm was optimistic that this breakthrough could “be an amazing endeavor of … achieving the goal of zero-carbon emission power,” but it’s also important that we consider these findings carefully. Scientists are still a long way from proving that their tests were successful and can be replicated on a large scale. In addition, some nuclear protections will still need to be in place.
While the process’ energy potential is immediately astounding, it’s also very likely that it will be weaponized. Even the DOE’s initial announcement championed its capabilities for “America’s national defense.” So celebrate the potential key to liberating energy from fossil fuels, but be wary of how else this new fuel source will inevitably be used.