Nuclear fusion could provide abundant, clean energy

The breakthrough also has applications in the advancement of nuclear weapons, specifically thermonuclear weapons (or "Hydrogen bombs"), which uses the same fusion principle

By Chidanand Rajghatta

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Published: Wed 14 Dec 2022, 10:07 PM

As a milestone in the history of science goes, it may rank up there with breakthroughs in electricity, internet, and antibiotics, to name just three. Last week, scientists in the United States, for the first time, achieved a net gain in energy from a nuclear fusion reaction, producing more energy than they put in. At the National Ignition Facility (NIL) in Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) in California, they replicated on earth a hard-to-imitate process (among other things because it requires extremely high temperatures) that occurs in the sun and the stars to produce vast amounts of energy (heat and light): Using lasers, they fused two lighter hydrogen nuclei using 2.05 megajoules of energy to produce a heavier nucleus with a resulting output of 3.15 megajoules.

It was, literally and metaphorically, a moment in the sun for scientists. For more than six decades, they have been pursuing the holy grail of nuclear fusion -- getting more energy out than they put in. The best they could extract was 70 percent of the energy put into a fusion reaction last year. How did they pull off this giant leap suddenly? The finer details are awaited, but for now, it appears the breakthrough has been peer-reviewed and authenticated with sufficient confidence for the US government to step in for the celebration.

The fallout of this breakthrough if taken to its conclusion has long been obvious: clean, abundant, carbon-free energy. But how soon and how easily can it be taken from the lab to marketplace, to commercial use? Naturally, at a briefing on Tuesday where the achievement was announced and celebrated, the first questions related to this because it has enormous geopolitical consequences. And you could see there was daylight between the scientific community and the political leadership in America on the timeline.

The circumspect view in the US scientific community, voiced by LLNL Director Kim Budil, was that it will take decades to bring this to practical application; perhaps not the five to six decades that scientists have previously projected, but certainly at least three decades. “I don't want to give you a sense that we're going to plug the National Ignition Facility into the grid. That's not how this works. But this is the first building block,” she cautioned.

But politicians and politics, particularly current geo-politics, march to a different tune, and the current energy atmospherics in Eurasia has infused additional electricity into the debate. So at the same briefing, you had Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm assert that President Biden has a "decadal vision to get to a commercial fusion reactor within, obviously, 10 years, so we’ve got to get to work." Considering the Energy Department holds the purse strings to LLNL, it is entirely possible the US government can fast track things.

There was one other striking aspect at the announcement. Granholm, who is a Canada-born naturalized US citizen, presented the breakthrough as an American achievement -- which indeed it is -- saying, “This is what it looks like for America to lead. And we’re just getting started.” The assertion had a very different undertone than the more expansive and famous quote essayed by Neil Armstrong on reaching another milestone for humankind – stepping onto the moon: "That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind." Evidently, this is very much an American step -- or leap -- forward, although the idea of fusion goes beyond the moon to the sun and the stars.

One possible reason for this is the breakthrough also has applications in the advancement of nuclear weapons, specifically thermonuclear weapons (or "Hydrogen bombs"), which uses the same fusion principle. Indeed, the LLNL's mandate includes nuclear weapons research — conducting fusion experiments in order to maintain and develop the US thermonuclear arsenal without the need for nuclear tests.

Of course, other countries are not sitting on their haunches on the fusion front. In January, it was reported that China’s Experimental Advanced Superconducting Tokamak (EAST) sustained a record 17-minute fusion reaction. The Europeans have been building the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) in southern France, and it will be the largest fusion facility in the world when it begins experiments in 2025. India and South Korea are among the countries in pursuit of this holy grail of clean fusion energy.

In many ways, these efforts are more collaborative than competitive as scientists -- and funding -- move from one centre to another. US researchers, American companies, and US taxpayer dollars are involved in both ITER and EAST. But all that was initiated before the current uptick in tensions with China and Russia, the rise of nativism in America, and the setback to globalisation. Left to the scientific community, it will continue with the same leisurely, collaborative effort for the greater good of humankind. Geo-politics on the other hand is a different beast.

- The writer is a senior journalist based in Washington

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