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US scientists prepare fusion energy announcement

FILE - This undated file photo provided by the National Ignition Facility at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory shows the facility in Livermore, California.  (Damien Jemison/Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory via AP, File)
FILE – This undated file photo provided by the National Ignition Facility at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory shows the facility in Livermore, California. (Damien Jemison/Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory via AP, File)

WASHINGTON (AP) — US Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm was scheduled to announce Tuesday a “scientific breakthrough” in decades-old efforts to control fusion, the energy that lights up the Sun and other stars.

For the first time, researchers at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California produced more energy in a fusion reaction than was used to cause it, called a net energy gain, according to a government official and a scientist familiar with the research. Both spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to comment on the discovery before the announcement.

Granholm was scheduled to give a presentation with researchers from Livermore in Washington. The Energy Department declined to give details ahead of time. The news was first published by the Financial Times.

Fusion advocates are confident that one day it can produce nearly unlimited energy free of carbon dioxide emissions, displacing fossil fuels and other traditional energy sources. There are still decades to produce fusion power to power homes and businesses, but the researchers said it was still significant progress.

“It’s almost like starting to shoot a gun,” 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 must work towards making fusion power systems available to address climate change and energy security.”

Net energy gain has been an elusive target because fusion occurs at such high temperatures and pressures that it is incredibly difficult to control.

Fusion works by pressing hydrogen atoms together so strongly that they combine to form helium, releasing an enormous amount of energy and heat. Unlike other nuclear reactions, it does not create radioactive waste.

Billions of dollars and decades of work have been invested in fusion research, producing exciting results…for seconds. Scientists at the Natural Ignition Facility, the division of Lawrence Livermore where the breakthrough was achieved, once used 192 lasers and temperatures several times higher than the center of the Sun to create an extremely brief fusion reaction.

Lasers direct an enormous amount of heat onto a small metal can. The result is a superheated environment of plasma where fusion can occur.

Riccardo Betti, a professor at the University of Rochester and an expert in laser fusion, said an announcement of net gain in a fusion reaction would be significant, although there was still a long way to go before the result produced sustainable electricity.

He likened the achievement to the discovery that refining oil into gasoline and setting it on fire could cause an explosion.

“We don’t have the engine yet and we don’t have the tires yet,” Betti explained. “We can’t say we have a car.”

Controlling the physics of stars is incredibly difficult. Whyte noted that getting to this point has been challenging because the fuel has to be hotter than the center of the sun. The fuel does not want to stay hot, but to leak and cool down. Containing it is an incredible challenge, he noted.

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Mathew Daly reported from Washington. Maddie Burakoff reported from New York, Michael Phillis from St. Louis, and Jennifer McDermott from Providence, Rhode Island.

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Associated Press climate and environmental coverage receives support from several private foundations. AP is solely responsible for its content.

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