Major 'ignition' breakthrough brings us years closer to commercial nuclear fusion plants

When will we see the world's first commercial nuclear fusion plant?
Chris Young
The National Ignition Facility
The National Ignition Facility.

LLNL 

A major breakthrough in nuclear fusion technologies was revealed to the world on Tuesday, December 13.

Scientists from the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) announced that they achieved fusion ignition during a nuclear fusion experiment, meaning they were able to produce more energy from a tiny hydrogen capsule than was zapped into it by a state-of-the-art laser system.

It's a momentous milestone that paves the way for practically limitless clean energy production from nuclear fusion, which is often referred to as the "holy grail" of energy production. But when will we see nuclear fusion actually power our homes and cities? It's complicated.

Nuclear fusion breakthrough a "fundamental first step"

During the breakthrough fusion experiment, the scientists used a 192-beam laser at the $3.5 billion NIF facility to heat and compress hydrogen inside a capsule to higher temperatures than the Sun. This caused the capsule to implode and hydrogen atoms to slam and fuse together. The result was net energy production — or fusion ignition — as 2.05 megajoules (MJ) of energy were delivered to the target, and 3.15 MJ were produced.

There's a catch, though. As the BBC points out, the energy produced — enough to boil two to three kettles — was more than the energy beamed into the hydrogen capsule by the lasers but less than the actual energy required to power those lasers. While fusion ignition is a major breakthrough, a long road still lies ahead before we see any functioning commercial fusion power plants. That's because the scientific community still has a lot of work to do to scale and hone the technology demonstrated in LLNL's experiment.

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Major 'ignition' breakthrough brings us years closer to commercial nuclear fusion plants
An artist's impression showing the hydrogen capsule at NIF.

The same sentiment was expressed by the LLNL's own director, Dr. Kim Budil, during a live announcement event — viewable below — on Tuesday. Fusion ignition is "a first fundamental step," but there are still "very significant hurdles" toward realizing commercial nuclear fusion, Budil explained.

When will we finally have commercial nuclear fusion power plants?

It's not possible to put an exact timeframe on the advent of commercial nuclear fusion, but this week's announcement means we have a better idea of where we stand. In an interview with CNN, US Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm highlighted President Joe Biden's goal, announced this summer, of having a commercial fusion reactor within ten years.

Budil was more conservative, stating that a "few decades of research could put us in a position to build a power plant," as the technology demonstrated during the experiment has to be perfected and scaled for mass use. Though she didn't want to commit to a more specific timeline, Budil did state that we are now likely somewhere around two to three decades away from commercial nuclear fusion, rather than the five to six that have been cited until recently by many scientists.

Both Budil and Granholm, however, also acknowledged the global community and the private sector's role in accelerating the development of fusion technology. Budil explained, for example, that the Joint European Torus (JET) in Oxfordshire, which uses an alternative fusion technology, could be ready sooner than the rough timeline she indicated. The UK government, meanwhile, recently revealed plans to have a working fusion reactor by 2040.

Commercial nuclear fusion power plants may still be a long way off, but the scientific community has now overcome a key hurdle in the form of fusion ignition. A long road lies ahead, but the destination is firmly in sight.