What you really need to know about that fusion news
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There’s been a fusion breakthrough. This is not true.
There are plenty of quips about fusion power, and there’s a reason that the technology has a bit of a “boy who cried wolf” reputation: researchers have been talking about using it to build limitless clean energy for decades, making big promises about commercial power plants being only a few years away. But so far, it hasn’t turned out that way.
Many are suspicious when a news cycle on fusion calls something a “breakthrough”. We are now in one of those news cycles. A national lab has reached a major research milestone and ran a reaction that released more energy than the lasers used to create it. Let’s discuss the announcement that sparked fusion hype ,, what it means and what you should learn from it.
What is fusion power, and what’s the hype about?
In a nutshell, fusion reactions generate energy by slamming atoms into each other until they fuse, releasing energy. (The sun’s core is powered through nuclear fusion so you could say that solar power is an indirect form of fusion power.
Fusion power could be a new source of power for the grid. Based on the power of fusion reactions, the technology could only use small amounts and not generate dangerous waste materials. It is obvious that this technology has great appeal.
The first step towards this new power source is to make fusion reactions happen in a controlled way in the lab. Researchers must ensure that these reactions produce more energy than the amount of energy required to start them. This is the goal that both companies and public research institutions are striving for, and it was not achieved until last week.
Since it began experiments in 2010, the National Ignition Facility at Lawrence Livermore National Lab in California has been among the frontrunners in the race to net energy gain. In recent years, NIF has gotten tantalizingly close to achieving its goal: just last year, researchers achieved a 70% energy return.
So when rumors started circulating over the weekend, first reported by the Financial Times, that researchers at NIF had finally achieved net gain, the energy world pretty much had one of two reactions:
- This is huge news
- Here we go, another fusion hype cycle
When I saw this news, sitting outside a dressing room while doing some holiday shopping, I had both reactions. I quickly scrolled through the article on my smartphone and read the details. 100 million degrees, 192 lasers, a few megajoules of energy released. I messaged the article to my colleagues with a simple comment: “Huge if true.”
And true it was: a couple days later, the Department of Energy confirmed the news in a press conference.
This is a big moment for fusion power, a basic test that the field has been striving for since researchers started dreaming about it in the 1950s. That deserves to be celebrated, and I think it’s fine to get excited about it. It’s a significant milestone.
But…we need to be clear here. This is primarily a scientific accomplishment. Fusion still has a lot to do before it becomes a technology we can actually use in our daily lives ..
What does this mean for fusion’s prospects?
As I pointed out in my news story, Lawrence Livermore has the world’s most powerful laser. This is not something we will be able replicate immediately around the globe. It isn’t meant to be.
In fact, the approach to fusion that NIF uses isn’t even the one that most researchers think is the most likely to be commercialized (partially because of that whole world’s largest laser thing).
NIF is currently researching inertial confinement, which is where a burst with powerful lasers is used for x-rays. These x-rays can then heat and compress a fuel made from deuterium or tritium (isotopes containing hydrogen), to a high enough pressure and temperature to form a plasma. The nuclei of the plasma can then fuse and produce energy.
Fusion scientists agree that magnetic confinement, a reactor called a Tokamak, is the best approach for commercial efforts in the near-term .. These reactors, which are shaped like a donut, use strong magnets to hold the fuel and create the intense conditions necessary for fusion using an electrical current and radio waves.
This is the approach that’s being used by Commonwealth Fusion Systems, a startup spun out of MIT that’s the most well-funded private player in the fusion space. My colleague James Temple took an in-depth look at the group earlier this year, and we named practical fusion reactors one of our 10 Breakthrough Technologies of 2022.
Commonwealth is working on a compact, relatively inexpensive reactor that would cost hundreds of millions of dollars, instead of the billions it took to construct NIF. The superconducting materials are used to create super strong magnetic fields that can keep plasma still for fusion reactions. Conventional materials cannot keep the fuel in place at these high temperatures.
Some experts in fusion believe that practical reactors capable of producing significant amounts of power are still decades away. Commonwealth and other startups are aiming for a faster timeline. They plan to build demonstrations in a few years, and power plants in about a decade. Last year, Commonwealth announced that it had raised $1.8 billion in venture capital funding. The NIF news will likely be a boon for fusion research generally, driving more investment and interest. However, it is not a guarantee that commercially viable inertial confinement or any other approach to nuclear fusion will be successful. Achieving net gain in one kind of reactor doesn’t necessarily translate to others, so tokamaks and other reactors will need to have their own breakthrough moment on the pathway towards making fusion power happen.
For more information on the news, including the power required to run those lasers, see my article . I’d also recommend this coverage from The Atlantic, which dives into more of the history of fusion hype. And for what the path forward looks like for Commonwealth and other private fusion efforts, read James’s in-depth feature from February.
Keeping up with climate
A new report predicts that renewables could overtake coal as the world’s biggest energy source as early as 2025. (Washington Post)
A wild new idea for solar panels: just set them on the ground to save on installation costs. (Canary Media)
In other solar panel news, researchers are working on “bifacial” solar cells that could take energy in from either side. (Nature Energy)
The US could be funding mining overseas, in an effort to bolster supplies of the materials needed for EVs. (Axios)
– New tax credits in the US for EVs could hit roadblocks because of material shortages. (MIT Technology Review)
– Here’s what the EV tax credits mean for you if you’re trying to buy a car in the US soon. (NBC)
New maps show how different neighborhoods have different climate impacts. New maps show how different neighborhoods have different climate impacts. Dense cities are more climate-friendly than dense ones, while richer areas and suburbs emit more. (New York Times)
Mini cars are gaining popularity across Asia, and they’re better for the climate. This is what it would take for them to reach the US. (Bloomberg)
JetBlue is dumping offsets, turning their attention instead to sustainable aviation fuels. (The Verge)
– Alternative fuels still have steep challenges ahead, but the aviation industry is relying on them for climate goals. (MIT Technology Review)
I’m a journalist who specializes in investigative reporting and writing. I have written for the New York Times and other publications.