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A report teasing a breakthrough in the search for viable nuclear fusion is generating a burst of cautious excitement for the future of energy ahead of a U.S. government announcement next week.
In the past two weeks, scientists at a federal facility in California were able to produce more energy than the amount of energy put into the experiment using laser beams to ignite a fusion reaction with a small amount of hydrogen plasma, sources told the Financial Times.
This net energy gain, which has eluded physicists for decades, was achieved at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, and signals the emergence of a technology that could become a zero-carbon alternative to fossil fuels, though scientists stress that fusion power stations are decades away from becoming a reality, the report added.
People inside and out of the scientific community celebrated the news, though with a healthy dose of caution. The report offers some reason to be careful, as two of its sources said the greater-than-expected energy output — 2.5 megajoules of energy in the experiment using 2.1 megajoules of energy in the lasers — damaged some diagnostic equipment.
“If this is confirmed, we are witnessing a moment of history,” said Dr. Arthur Turrell, a plasma physicist, according to the report. “Scientists have struggled to show that fusion can release more energy than is put in since the 1950s, and the researchers at Lawrence Livermore seem to have finally and absolutely smashed this decades-old goal.”
Rep. Ted Lieu (D-CA), who is a member of multiple energy caucuses and groups, tweeted, “If this fusion energy breakthrough is true, it could be a game changer for the world.”
If this fusion energy breakthrough is true, it could be a game changer for the world. https://t.co/bSeCnWCE19
— Ted Lieu (@tedlieu) December 11, 2022
The report noted the laboratory was not ready to confirm any findings just yet.
“Initial diagnostic data suggests another successful experiment at the National Ignition Facility. However, the exact yield is still being determined and we can’t confirm that it is over the threshold at this time,” the lab said. “That analysis is in process, so publishing the information … before that process is complete would be inaccurate.”
Still, Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm and Undersecretary for Nuclear Security Jill Hruby are expected to announce “a major scientific breakthrough” at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory on Tuesday, according to the Energy Department.