Fusion Breakthrough Brings Cheers, Though Challenges Remain

The announcement that scientists at a California laboratory achieved a net energy gain from a fusion reaction sparked plenty of debate about what it means for the power generation industry.

The breakthrough at the world’s largest nuclear-fusion site—the National Ignition Facility (NIF) at the Lawrence Livermore lab—which occurred on Dec. 5 and was publicly announced by Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm on Dec. 13, brought excitement from the global fusion-research community. It showed that harnessing the energy that powers the sun could be used to potentially provide nearly unlimited clean energy on Earth.

Nuclear power experts marveled at the accomplishment. According to researchers, the NIF used its set of 192 lasers to deliver 2.05 megajoules of energy onto a pea-sized gold cylinder. The cylinder contained a frozen pellet of two hydrogen isotopes: deuterium and tritium. The pulse of energy caused the capsule to collapse, which created extremely high temperatures (think thermonuclear weapons, and stars). The hydrogen isotopes fused into helium, which released more energy and set off a cascade of fusion reactions.

Scientists who analyzed the process said the reactor released about 3.15 megajoules of energy, which means that about 54% more energy was created than was consumed by the reaction. A milestone, to be sure, even if commercialization of the technology likely remains years away.

Scientific Milestone

“This is such a wonderful example of a possibility realized, a scientific milestone achieved, and a road ahead to the possibilities for clean energy,” Arati Prabhakar, science adviser for the White House, said during the Dec. 13 news conference at the Dept. of Energy’s (DOE’s) headquarters in Washington, D.C.

Andrew Sowder, senior technical executive at EPRI—the Electric Power Research Institute—told POWER: “I would say this would be kind of like getting the first man in orbit. You’re not to the moon yet, but you’ve shown you can get the person in space. This is kind of a first step.  This becomes an important tool in the toolbox for energy. The more tools you have the better.”

One company already has announced plans to build what it said would be the world’s first laser fusion power plant. Longview Fusion Energy Systems, a group with ties to the Livermore lab, soon after Granholm’s announcement said its power plant design “would combine the NIF’s laser fusion breakthrough with modern, efficient lasers and a patented design to replicate these conditions several hundred times a minute.”

Longview in a news release said its power plant “will provide carbon-free, safe, economical, and sustainable energy at a scale that can power a city’s electricity and drive industrial production of the materials needed for today’s world – from steel to fertilizer to hydrogen fuel. With plant groundbreaking planned in five years, this revolutionary energy source will play a significant role in meeting the global growing need for clean energy.” The company said it expects to break ground on fusion-based power plant “in five years,” adding “this revolutionary energy source will play a significant role in meeting the global growing need for clean energy.”

Longview’s team, led by Dr. Edward Moses—who has more than 40 years of experience in fusion energy—and Valerie Roberts, a longtime adviser to Fortune 500 executives across a variety of strategic and operational matters, said they’ve put together a “powerhouse team of fusion scientists, engineers, and business leaders, who were instrumental in the development of the breakthrough technology since its inception.” Longview over the past 18 months has been working with a several groups, including utilities, national labs, and investors to design a power plant based on the research being done at Lawrence Livermore.

Said Moses, “Longview has been working quietly in anticipation of this day, which is historic by all measures. We knew that when breakeven was achieved, it would be too late to begin to plan for full-scale commercialization. Today is the ‘day after,’ and we are here to ensure the world will have a carbon-free option in time to make a difference.”

“The Longview power plant is based on the world’s only experimental demonstration of fusion burn,” said Roberts. “It can use materials and products available today, cutting decades off the commercialization process. This reflects Longview’s ethos to deliver energy justice across the world’s communities, addressing the biggest challenge of our time—climate change.”

Commercialization Still Years Away

Longview’s vision echoes that of the scientific community that for years has looked at the potential of fusion-based power generation. Most experts still believe commercialization of fusion power will take years to develop. Kim Budil, director of the Livermore lab, at the Dec. 13 news conference at the U.S. Dept. of Energy said, “I don’t want to give you a sense that we’re going to plug the NIF into the grid … that is definitely not how this works. But this is the fundamental building block of an inertial confinement fusion power scheme.”

Budil, asked about a possible timeline for commercial fusion, said, “Probably decades. Not six decades, I don’t think. I think not five decades, which is what we used to say. I think it’s moving into the foreground and probably, with concerted effort and investment, a few decades of research on the underlying technologies could put us in a position to build a power plant.” Budli acknowledged the challenges, though, saying “There are very significant hurdles, not just in the science, but in technology.”

The energy potential of fusion has for years been a focus for researchers, but its climate benefits are now part of the equation. Many policymakers and climate scientists have said that to achieve that goal of limiting global warming to 2C, or a more-ambitious target of 1.5C, net-zero emissions of carbon must be reached by 2050. That means current technologies must be leveraged while the wait continues for fusion-based power.

Michael Jung, executive director of the ICF Climate Center, an energy research consultancy, told POWER: “The fusion breakthrough announced by the DOE is an exciting scientific milestone, and a potential source of carbon-free baseload power in the latter half of the century. But to achieve the goal of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees, we’ll also need to leverage existing clean energy technologies in the near term—including solar, wind, and energy storage—that have been tested and proven at scale.”

Jung said government support is important for all types of energy that could combat climate change, and that’s already showing up in the renewable energy space.

Government Support

“The Inflation Reduction Act will rapidly reduce the cost of these technologies, further accelerating their adoption. In fact, ICF modeling shows that the IRA will make clean energy projects easier to finance across the country,” Jung said. “The average cost of commercially available clean energy technologies like wind power generation, for instance, could be further reduced by 38%-49%. These incentives are poised to speed up the pace of the energy transition today while we continue to work toward possibilities like fusion energy in the future.”

Veteran cleantech investor Neal Dikeman, a partner and co-founder at Energy Transition Ventures, acknowledged the importance of the successful fusion reaction but said there are many factors that will determine its future.

Dikeman told POWER, “I had a chance to see inside National Laboratory’s National Ignition Facility a decade back on a visit to Livermore. Unique and terrific experience. It’s great to see progress being made. NIF is both the largest single piece of test equipment on the planet, and a terrific swords-to-plowshares story about a test bed designed to test nuclear weapons after the testing ban treaties, now being used to test next-generation fusion energy.”

Dikeman, whose group invests in startup companies in the energy sector, including those in the clean energy space, said: “We have a rule in our fund, don’t bet against crystalline or lithium. The open question for fusion is not which variant of magnetic or inertial confinement is more likely to be commercial, or whether can we figure out how to get net energy and commercial scale … we can. The question is, can a fusion reactor that comes online in 5, 10, or 20 years beat the current cost of solar-plus-storage scale today, let alone where it will be in 2030 when a reactor comes online. But either way, this is one more step to rewriting the way we make and use energy.”

Support for Research

Lewis Black, CEO of Almonty Industries, a Canada-based global mining company, told POWER the fusion breakthrough should bring further support for more research into commercialization of the technology. Black, asked about whether governments should continue to invest in research, said, “Absolutely. It is the only true and ultimate clean energy option that scientifically exists. It would revolutionize power generation across the planet and has been studied since nuclear was first developed, as it was always considered the ultimate goal to achieve fusion generation.”

Black noted the progress of the ITER (International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor) project, a collaboration of multiple countries. “ITER is being commissioned shortly in France. This has been years in the making,” Black said. “Ultimately, if government will is there, then fusion can be accelerated on the back of the vast amount of research that has already been conducted … plus private capital is now entering the arena too.”

Black in a previous interview had said, “ITER is what I consider the ultimate clean energy producer because it produces no waste. It is a fusion reaction rather than a nuclear reaction meaning that the atom is being fused together and not split.” Black and others have said the key to commercializing fusion will be to increase both the absolute output, and the ratio of output to input energy—precisely a goal of the ITER project.

Officials have said ITER by the end of this decade wants to produce a power of 500 MW, and do that using only about 50 MW of laser power to begin the process. But fusion will still be competing economically against other zero-carbon technologies, such as today’s fission-based nuclear reactors, and of course renewable energy resources.

And the challenge of turning the fusion reaction’s heat into usable electricity, certainly at large scale, remains. Experts have said a viable laser fusion power plant would almost certainly require much higher energy gains than those achieved in the Livermore test.

Mark Herrmann, program director for weapons physics and design at Livermore, in an interview with the The New York Times said experiments at the NIF would continue with a goal of finding higher fusion output.

“That’s really what we’re going to be looking at honestly over the next few years,” Herrmann said. “These experiments show that even a little bit more laser energy can make a big difference.”

Darrell Proctor is a senior associate editor for POWER (@POWERmagazine).

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