Finally! Nuclear fusion scientists achieved net energy production in a historic first

This new breakthrough opens the door to limitless clean energy.
Chris Young
NIF preamplifier support structure at the National Ignition Lab at LLNL
NIF preamplifier support structure at the National Ignition Lab at LLNL

Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory 

The time has finally come.

Scientists at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) are the first in the world to demonstrate net energy production from nuclear fusion.

In other words, theirs was the first ever nuclear fusion experiment to produce more energy than was required to run the experiment in the first place.

Researchers achieved the milestone, also known as fusion ignition, at LLNL's National Ignition Facility (NIF) during a controlled fusion experiment last Monday, Dec. 5, according to a statement from the US Department of Energy (DOE). They waited for peer-review results before revealing the results to the world.

This is a potentially history-defining moment as it could lead to practically limitless clean energy production via nuclear fusion.

Scientists achieve fusion ignition

Nuclear fusion is the method used by the Sun and the stars to produce energy. As the global community grapples with the challenge of climate change and the energy transition, scientists have been hard at work developing the technology required to harness this power.

Nuclear fusion occurs when two atoms are slammed together to form a heavier nucleus, releasing vast amounts of energy in the process. Crucially, this process releases zero carbon emissions, meaning it could play a key role in averting the worst effects of climate change.

For decades, scientists have been working to overcome a key barrier to commercially viable nuclear fusion energy — the production of net energy. Fusion reactors — typically doughnut-shaped tokamak reactors — require vast amounts of energy to power, and scientists have so far not been able to produce more energy than was required to power the technology in the first place. Until now.

Scientists have been striving for years to achieve net energy nuclear fusion production — described by some as the "Holy Grail" of energy production. During a live-streamed event held by the DOE, scientists from LLNL explained that they were able to achieve net energy production in an experimental setting.

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The LLNL researchers, at the $3.5 billion NIF facility, used a powerful 192-beam laser to heat and compress hydrogen fuel inside a capsule the size of a peppercorn. The laser is capable of heating the capsule to 100 million degrees Celsius, which is hotter than the center of the Sun, and compressing it to more than 100 billion times Earth's atmospheric pressure. Under that incredible force, the capsule implodes and forces the hydrogen atoms to fuse and release energy.

The DOE points out in its statement that LLNL’s experiment "surpassed the fusion threshold by delivering 2.05 megajoules (MJ) of energy to the target, resulting in 3.15 MJ of fusion energy output, demonstrating for the first time a most fundamental science basis for inertial fusion energy (IFE)."

How close is commercially viable nuclear fusion?

While this is a major breakthrough for nuclear fusion science, it is worth pointing out that commercial nuclear fusion is still some way off.

During the DOE's live event, LLNL Director Dr. Kim Budil stated that there are still “very significant hurdles” toward realizing commercial nuclear fusion. Essentially, the process achieved during the NIF experiment has to be perfected and produced at a much larger scale to produce the required energy for commercial fusion.

Still, Budil emphasized that this is "a first fundamental step", and we are likely now only a couple of decades away from having the technology to build a nuclear fusion plant.

Dr. Marvin Adams, the National Nuclear Security Administration's (NNSA's) Deputy Administrator for Defense Programs, explained that during the experiment, the scientists saw "about 2 megajoules go in, and about 3 megajoules go out" and that "the energy production took less time than it takes light to travel one inch."

For the first time ever, that fusion experiment "produced more energy than the lasers had deposited," Adams added, "so this is pretty cool."

This was a breaking news article and it was updated as more information emerged. You can watch the live stream as it happened below.