Physicists Say We're Officially at the "Threshold of Nuclear Fusion Ignition"

Researchers just passed a major milestone, one they're calling "a Wright Brothers moment."
Chris Young

Researchers from the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) in California, announced the achievement of an important milestone on the road to nuclear fusion on Tuesday, August 17, a report from CNBC explains.

Nuclear fusion sees two atoms slammed together to form a heavier nucleus. The process unleashes great amounts of energy and it is the method by which the Sun and other stars produce energy.

Physicists worldwide are developing methods to safely harness this process, which has the potential to provide endless energy while practically producing no harmful emissions. The latest milestone announced by LLNL researchers brings us one step closer to "ignition," a crucial step in attaining viable nuclear fusion.

A step closer to "ignition"

In an interview with CNBC, Omar A. Hurricane, the Chief Scientist for the Inertial Confinement Fusion Program at LLNL said the new milestone is a "significant step forward in understanding what is required for it to work. To me, this is a Wright Brothers moment." 

Scientists at the LLNL's National Ignition Facility (NIF) are using a powerful laser to heat and compress hydrogen fuel, with the goal of initiating fusion. In order to reach the milestone of "ignition," they must show that the energy released by fusion exceeds the energy delivered by the laser. A recent experiment, conducted on August 8, shows that, for a brief moment, they were able to produce 1.3 megajoules of energy, which is roughly 70 percent of the laser energy. In order to achieve ignition, they must produce more than the 1.9 MJ emitted by the laser. Though the achievement does not constitute ignition, it is a significant step towards reaching that milestone.

"This advancement puts researchers at the threshold of fusion ignition, an important goal of the NIF, and opens access to a new experimental regime," a press statement from the researchers reads.

The long road to nuclear fusion

Though the results of the LLNL's August 8 experiment are yet to be peer-reviewed, the researchers state that the initial analysis shows an 8x improvement over the last ignition experiments conducted in spring 2021, and a 25x increase in energy yield over experiments in 2018.

Goals on the road to nuclear fusion are often given the hype treatment, meaning it can be difficult to distinguish whether they really merit the grand statement. Earlier this year, scientists from TAE Technologies developed a method for producing stable plasma at temperatures topping 50 million degrees Celsius — which is more than double the temperature of the core of the Sun.

They referred to the achievement as an "incredibly rewarding milestone." The UK's planned nuclear fusion reactor, the Spherical Tokamak for Energy Production (STEP), is expected to be operational no earlier than 2040, so we likely have some time to wait still before we see nuclear fusion truly take flight, and there will be plenty of merits and grand statements to go around.

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