Groundbreaking nuclear fusion experiment could ‘revolutionise the world’ with clean energy

US scientists have conducted the first-ever nuclear fusion experiment to achieve a net energy gain, paving the way for a “source of clean energy that could revolutionize the world”.

During a major news briefing at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, officials revealed that the successful fusion experiment took place last week.

How it happened: An “incredible” scientific discovery could create unlimited energy

It was the result of “60 years of global research, development, engineering and testing”, which could become the backbone of commercial electricity generation.

Such an outcome would boost the world’s shift to renewable energy, helping to fight climate change.

US Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm said the breakthrough “will go down in the history books.”

“This is one of the most impressive scientific feats of the 21st century,” he added.

How did the experiment take place?

The experiment involved 192 high-power laser beams being fired at a capsule containing the elements deuterium and tritium, heating it to a temperature of over three million degrees Celsius, thus briefly simulating the conditions of a star.

Dr. Marvin Adams said it had been performed “hundreds of times before,” but had never successfully produced more energy than it expended.

“For the first time, they designed this experiment so that the fusion fuel remained hot enough, dense enough and round enough to ignite and produce more energy than is deposited by the lasers,” he said.

“About two mega joules in, about three mega joules out — a gain of 1.5, power generation took less time than it takes for light to travel an inch.”

It was, as he quipped, “a bit fast”.

Though the target was smaller than a pea, the lasers — part of the so-called NIF system — are powerful enough to deliver more energy than the entire power grid that sustains the entire United States.

Chief engineer Jean-Michel Di Nicola said it “is the size of three football fields and delivers energy in excess of two million joules with a peak power of 500 trillion watts.”

“For a very short period of time, a few billionths of a second, it surpasses the entire US power grid,” he said.

How long before the process can create usable energy?

The question on everyone’s lips after the press conference was how long it would take before the process could be used to create energy that we could actually use.

Dr Kim Budil, director of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, admitted it would take “probably decades”.

President Joe Biden said he hoped a commercial fusion reactor would be installed within 10 years, and officials acknowledged the private sector should play a big role in accelerating the shift from lab experiments to commercial electricity generation.

Other nuclear fusion projects will also have a role to play – and scientists in California cited work by a team in Oxfordshire, which earlier this year they used their JET machine to generate about 11 megawatts of energy.

That was far more than was generated in the NIF experiment, but crucially it didn’t achieve a net energy gain.

Professor Gianluca Gregori of the University of Oxford, a specialist in the type of laser used in the laboratory, pointed out that the amount of energy produced was less than that needed to power a wall outlet.

“While this is not yet an economically viable powerhouse, the path forward is much clearer,” he added.

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Jeremy Chittenden, professor of plasma physics at Imperial College London, said scientists ‘will have to find a way to reproduce the same effect much more frequently and much more cheaply’.

If they did, it would be a huge blow in the arm to the world’s drive towards renewables.

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