LLNL Scientists Report Fusion Breakthrough

On Dec. 5, a team at Lawrence Livermore National Lab’s (LLNL) National Ignition Facility (NIF) conducted the first controlled fusion experiment in history to reach fusion “ignition,” which is believed to be a breakthrough milestone, where the fusion reaction begins to produce more energy from fusion than the energy applied to drive it.

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Scientists studying fusion energy at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) in California determined via calculations that they had crossed a long-awaited threshold in reproducing the power of the sun in a laboratory. It took a few days for them to do their analysis of the energy product but by Sunday, Dec. 11th, word had begun to leak out. The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) , having provided the primary funding for this work, took the lead in taking credit for the achievement and scheduled a press announcement for Tuesday, Dec. 13th.  Meanwhile, various results were reported in the press, some claiming 120% gain, some going as high as 150% gain.  While the exact number is not that critical, what is important is that these scientists and experts believe that there was a notable achievement in the operation of the plasma ignition that took place, even though it lasted for all of a fraction of a second.

“This is a landmark achievement for the researchers and staff at the National Ignition Facility who have dedicated their careers to seeing fusion ignition become a reality, and this milestone will undoubtedly spark even more discovery,” said U.S. Secretary of Energy Jennifer M. Granholm. “The Biden-Harris Administration is committed to supporting our world-class scientists — like the team at NIF — whose work will help us solve humanity’s most complex and pressing problems, like providing clean power to combat climate change and maintaining a nuclear deterrent without nuclear testing.”

LLNL’s experiment surpassed the fusion threshold by delivering 2.05 megajoules (MJ) of laser 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). Many advanced science and technology developments are still needed to achieve simple, affordable IFE to power homes and businesses, and DOE is currently restarting a broad-based, coordinated IFE program in the United States. Combined with private-sector investment, there is a lot of momentum to drive rapid progress toward fusion commercialization.

Led by physicist John Nuckolls, who later served as LLNL director from 1988 to 1994, this revolutionary idea became inertial confinement fusion, kicking off more than 60 years of research and development in lasers, optics, diagnostics, target fabrication, computer modeling and simulation and experimental design.

To pursue this concept, LLNL built a series of increasingly powerful laser systems, leading to the creation of NIF, the world’s largest and most energetic laser system. NIF — located at LLNL in Livermore, California — is the size of a sports stadium and uses powerful laser beams to create temperatures and pressures like those in the cores of stars and giant planets, and inside exploding nuclear weapons.

[Note: Nucleation Capital has invested in Focused Energy, a private venture which has chosen to develop fusion by following the same Inertial Fusion Energy approach as that used by LLNL. Focused was founded by scientists who had worked at LLNL and who have spent their careers studying both fusion and lasers. Focused Energy has based their ability to deliver fusion upon their expertise in developing the next generation of high-powered laser and the next generation of fuel target, taking what LLNL has done forward with proprietary technology.]

Read more at Lawrence Livermore National Lab: National Ignition Facility achieves fusion ignition, published December 13, 2022; The New York Times, Scientists Achieve Nuclear Fusion Breakthrough With Blast of 192 Lasers, by Kenneth Chang, December 13, 2022; and the Financial Times, Fusion energy breakthrough by US scientists boosts clean power hopes, by Tom Wilson, December 13, 2022.  Also see the statement from TAE, a fusion competitor, TAE Technologies’ statement on US nuclear fusion advancement.