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U.S. details nuclear fusion breakthrough — but experts caution commercial viability is a decade or more away

nuclear fusion
Nuclear fusion, if and when it can be produced at scale, has long been considered the Holy Grail in the push for clean energy and slowing global warming. GETTY IMAGES

From MarketWatch.  The U.S. Department of Energy on Tuesday announced a breakthrough in ongoing research for nuclear fusion, long heralded for its potential as a source of zero-emissions and essentially, limitless, energy.

Federally-funded scientists with the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California recently produced more energy than was consumed in a fusion reaction for the first time.

“This breakthrough will change the future of clean power and America’s national defense forever,” the department said in a tweet alongside its live announcement of the discovery first reported over the weekend.

Nuclear fusion is the process of fusing two or more atoms into one larger one, a process that unleashes potentially usable energy as heat, in much the same way the sun heats the Earth. Nuclear power used today is created by a different process, called fission, which relies on splitting atoms and harnessing that energy, while also producing radioactive waste.

Currently, traditional nuclear plants using fission produce about 10% of the world’s electricity, but their proponents have also pushed their expansion as a key to a diverse portfolio of alternative energy.

Nuclear fusion, if it can be produced at scale, has long been considered the Holy Grail in the push for clean energy and slowing the global warming that is intensifying natural disasters, acidifying oceans and bringing extreme heat and drought. The U.S. and much of the rest of the developed world have been promoting a combination of solar, wind ICLN, 1.67%, hydrogen and nuclear energy to replace the coal, oil CL00,  and natural gas NG00 that send atmosphere-warming emissions into the air.

Many nations, including the U.S., have said their economies must cut emissions by half as soon as 2030 and hit net-zero emissions by 2050.

On Sunday, the Financial Times first reported the Livermore developments.

“The recent experiment is a first-of-its-kind feat that could lead to an effective process for producing a zero-carbon alternative to fossil fuels and [traditional] nuclear energy,” said Frank Maisano, senior principal focused on energy with the Policy Resolution Group in Washington.

Daniel Kammen, a professor of energy and society at the University of California at Berkeley, told the Associated Press that nuclear fusion offers the possibility of “basically unlimited” fuel, but only when the technology can be made commercially viable. The basic elements are easily accessible; in fact, they’re available in seawater.

The Livermore lab announcement isn’t the only effort toward a fusion breakthrough, which scientists have worked on for decades.

In Europe earlier this year, a large, doughnut-shaped machine known as a tokamak, developed by scientists working in the English village of Culham, near Oxford, generated a record-breaking 59 megajoules of sustained nuclear fusion energy over five seconds during trials, the scientists revealed. That more than doubled the previous record for generating and sustaining fusion.

While scientists have generated fusion energy before, it is sustaining the power that has been difficult to achieve. A magnetic field is required to contain the high temperatures created by the fusion process — some 150 million degrees Celsius, 10 times hotter than the center of the sun.

The Livermore lab uses a different technique than the tokamak, with researchers firing a 192-beam laser at a small capsule filled with deuterium-tritium fuel. The lab reported that an August 2021 test produced 1.35 megajoules of fusion energy — about 70% of the energy fired at the target. The lab said several subsequent experiments showed declining results, but researchers believed they had identified ways to improve the quality of the fuel capsule and the lasers’ symmetry.

In Orange County, California, another contender in the fusion race, TAE Technologies, is on track to develop the first commercial prototype power plant for clean fusion energy by 2030, its CEO Michl Binderbauer told MarketWatch earlier this year. Binderbauer had just attended the first-ever White House Fusion Summit.

At that event, administration officials announced what they called a “bold decadal vision” to accelerate the development of commercial fusion energy.

“There’s a fallacy in thinking that solar and wind can solve everything,” said Binderbauer. “Absolutely, they’re wonderful sources of power where it fits. But there are also limitations. There’s no world that can run on 100% renewables.”

Nuclear industry analysts remind us that it will take sustaining and repeating the process, and at scale, for the development to change traditional energy markets anytime soon.

“This doesn’t mean it’s not a big deal, but I still doubt how much this impacts the efforts to bring fusion closer to commercial reality.  My sense is fusion is at least a decade or more away from any commercialization,” said Jonathan Hinze, president of UxC, LLC, which tracks the uranium and nuclear markets, in an email to MarketWatch.

Tony Leo, chief technology officer at FuelCell Energy FCEL, 3.75% said he believes fusion technology can accompany advances in using hydrogen instead of fossil fuels.

“This is an example of technology that will help power a hydrogen economy over the long term,” he said. “The electricity from fusion will be a great partner to electrolysis technology — which would use electricity to split water into hydrogen and oxygen — to produce zero-carbon hydrogen.”

The Associated Press contributed.

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