U.S. physicists have accomplished a feat the world has pursued for more than 60 years: producing more energy from fusion than required to create the reaction. Called energy’s “holy grail,” fusion has the potential to provide unlimited carbon-free power.
The milestone was achieved at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory’s National Ignition Facility (NIF) in California on Dec. 5. Officials with the U.S. Department of Energy announced the news today, calling it a “historic, first-of-its kind achievement.”
The advancement “will undoubtedly spark even more discovery,” said U.S. Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm, in a statement.
Much of that discovery — and commercialization of the technology — could take place in the Pacific Northwest, home to several growing fusion energy companies.
“Every American should be proud this breakthrough was achieved by our country,” said Robin Langtry, CEO of Seattle-based fusion startup Avalanche Energy.
For decades, scientists have been able to create fusion, a reaction where atoms smash into each other at tremendous speed and stick together. That act of fusing the atoms releases energy, but until now it has required more power to create fusion than it produces. The NIF team achieved what is called “scientific energy breakeven.”
The national lab researchers in California used the world’s most energetic laser to create X-rays that blasted a fuel capsule to generate a plasma, or superheated gas, that ignites fusion.
But that’s not the only way to do it. There are five companies across the Pacific Northwest working to commercialize the power source, each using different strategies for generating fusion. The group includes Washington state’s Avalanche, Helion Energy, Zap Energy and CTFusion, as well as British Columbia’s General Fusion.
Some of the companies use technology from the University of Washington and Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, which continue to provide expertise and research.
Langtry and many others — including those from NIF — cautioned that researchers are still a long ways off from being able to generate energy in a cost-efficient way and harnessing that power for the electrical grid.
The NIF milestone wasn’t so much a “Kitty Hawk” moment, which is when the Wright brothers famously made a sustained flight in their plane. The new results are rather more akin to the Wright’s wind tunnel experiments, Langtry said, where they fine-tuned their ability to achieve lift in a controlled experiment.
Additional advancements are coming, he predicted.
“You are going to see more and more breakthroughs and announcements over the next five to 10 years culminating in that ‘Kitty Hawk’ announcement of a net energy fusion machine,” Langtry told GeekWire on Tuesday.
David Kirtley, Helion’s CEO, echoed that excitement. “The world is closer than ever to harnessing fusion,” he said.
“While NIF is not focused on commercial energy production,” he added, “their research is helpful to commercial fusion companies like Helion, by de-risking and examining the key physics that stay true for all fusion.”
Everett-based Helion is building its seventh fusion prototype, dubbed Polaris, which they hope will go even further than the NIF milestone. By 2024, the aim for Polaris is to capture the energy created by fusion and produce net electricity.
Brian Nelson, chief technology officer for Zap, also drew the distinction between NIF’s advancement and commercialization.
“We have a lot more work to do to make fusion a practical energy source,” Nelson said, “but today’s result is an important step on the way.”
NIF’s experiment produced 3.15 megajoules (MJ) of fusion energy output, which required an input of 2.05 MJ with the laser.
But it had to draw 300 MJ from the grid to fire the laser, explained Mark Herrmann, a deputy program director at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.
“The laser wasn’t designed to be efficient, the laser was designed to give us as much juice as possible to make these incredible conditions happen in the laboratory,” said Herrmann, who spoke at a panel announcing the news. “So there are many, many steps that would have to be made in order to get to an inertial fusion as an energy source.”
General Fusion CEO Greg Twinney is also looking ahead to energy production.
“This announcement is a terrific culmination of years of incremental progress and now it’s up to companies like ours to design practical electricity-producing machines that overcome the barriers of neutron degradation, heat transfer and fuel production,” he said on Tuesday.
General Fusion — which was founded 20 years ago and is the oldest fusion business in the Pacific Northwest — is building a demonstration machine in the U.K. that should begin operating in 2025 and be able to produce “a power-plant-relevant environment.” The company aims to commercialize its technology by the early 2030s.
Derek Sutherland, CEO of Seattle’s CTFusion, likewise cheered the news from NIF.
“If you’ve ever thought of joining the fusion energy sector,” he said, “right now is the best time to date to do so.”