Was the fusion breakthrough truly revolutionary?

By Isaac Williams

On the 13th of December, the Biden administration announced that scientists at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory have achieved the first net-positive controlled nuclear fusion reaction. This means that a man-made fusion reaction has produced more energy than was used to initiate it for the first time in history.

News like this couldn’t come at a better time. Many countries still face sky-high energy prices due to the war in Ukraine, and many have commitments to significantly reduce carbon emissions in face of catastrophic climate change. This creates the perfect opportunity for a clean, cheap, limitless and carbon-free energy source such nuclear fusion to be introduced. It’s suggested that one glass of water can generate enough electricity for one person’s lifetime using nuclear fusion, so it’s clear why so much time and money is being spent on fusion research. Fusion reactors are also far safer than fission reactors. If the reactor breaks down the plasma will naturally terminate, losing energy very quickly before any significant damage can be done to the reactor or its surroundings – whereas fission reactors can lead to incidents like Chernobyl and Fukushima.

Clean, cheap, limitless and carbon-free energy

Nuclear fusion occurs when to lighter nuclei are fused together to create a heavier element, this releases a surprising amount of energy compared to the size of the atoms. It is the process that powers the sun and all other stars in the universe, so there is no doubting that it has the potential to produce a significant amount of power. In man-made fusion-powered generators, different isotopes of hydrogen are fused to produce helium, this means no toxic by-products are being produced. However, for this reaction to occur on earth temperatures in excess of 150 million degrees Celsius (ten times hotter than the sun’s core) must be achieved. As you can imagine, this is very hard to produce without melting the entire reactor – so super-strong magnetic fields are used to contain the plasma (super-hot gas). Setting this system up takes a lot of research and scientists and engineers have spent years gradually improving it.

Development of fusion reactors has been happening since 1946 when the first related patent was registered by the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority. Propelled by the Cold War arms race and fusion’s use in atomic weaponry, fusion research was highly funded throughout the 50s and 60s and commercial fusion power was thought to be possible in the near future. By the 70s, fusion research had shifted away from weaponry and towards energy generation – a trend that has continued to the present day, resulting in improvements to reactor design and efficiency being produced year after year. However, since fusion’s inception it has often been said that a commercial fusion reactor is twenty years away and so far, that prediction has never been correct.

A cynic would say this breakthrough is just a flashy headline and nothing more, and the evidence tends to agree. For example, the “net energy gain” soundbite that is used is in reference to the energy used to heat up the plasma – if you take into account the electricity used to generate this heat, the reactor actually loses energy. Suddenly this experiment doesn’t seem so special after all. The experiment also uses the world’s biggest laser, lasts 1 billionth of a second and can only be repeated every six hours, all to produce enough energy to heat up 10 kettles of water. This process clearly is not currently suited to any widespread implementation and will need a lot of development before it can be commercially viable.

This process clearly is not suited to any widespread implementation

Whilst this breakthrough is good news in the development of a nuclear fusion reaction, it is still just another small step in the decades[1]long process of developing this new technology. You won’t be boiling your kettles with the help of fusion power for at least another 25 years.

Image: Generated by OpenAI’s DALL·E 2

2 thoughts on “Was the fusion breakthrough truly revolutionary?

  • Literally the best article I’ve ever read! Better than my textbooks FOR SURE!

  • Honestly just a hater


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