Breakthrough in nuclear fusion technology could dramatically alter clean energy landscape

For the first time, scientists have produced a fusion reaction that created more energy than was expended, a breakthrough to tap into the same kind of energy that powers the sun and stars. It could have huge implications for potentially creating clean and limitless energy. Science Correspondent Miles O’Brien joined Judy Woodruff to discuss what was achieved and what still needs to happen.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    For the first time, scientists have produced a nuclear fusion reaction that created more energy than was expended, a breakthrough to tap into the same kind of energy that powers the sun and the stars.

    Researchers at the Lawrence Livermore Livermore National Laboratory in California announced the details today. And it could have huge implications for potentially creating clean and limitless energy some day. But that day is many years away.

    To help us understand what was achieved and what still needs to happen, I'm joined by our science correspondent, Miles O'Brien.

    So, hello, Miles.

    Remind us, what is fusion? What is nuclear fusion?

  • Miles O’Brien:

    Nuclear fusion is what powers the stars, what powers our sun.

    Essentially, what happens is, a couple of hydrogen atoms come together and they fuse. And when they fuse, they create a tremendous amount of energy. This happens on the sun under tremendously rigorous conditions with a lot of gravity and force. It's very difficult to replicate that here on Earth.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And what exactly is the breakthrough that these scientists achieved?

  • Miles O’Brien:

    As you said, it happened at the Lawrence Livermore Livermore National Laboratory, the National Ignition Facility. It's the most powerful laser in the world — 192 lasers pointed at something about the size of a peppercorn inside a cylinder.

    The energy which was delivered to that cylinder was on the order of two megajoules. Now, just for a point of reference, one kilowatt hour equates to 3.6 megajoules. So, in any case, two megajoules came in. It ignited those hydrogen atoms. They fused and created more energy, essentially, one megajoule more.

    Now, that is the first time that's ever happened in a laboratory experiment. Obviously, it's not to scale. There's a lot of work to be done, but it's a moment to remember.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, how — you said a lot of work to be done.

    And so how far are we from taking this breakthrough and turning it into something that can be scaled and used for commercial purposes?

  • Miles O’Brien:

    Well, just to give you a point of reference here, they're able to do this once a day.

    They need to be able to do this 10 times a second in order for there to be enough electricity to be practical and scalable as something you want to plug into the grid. So, you get an idea that its many orders of magnitude away from that. There's a lot of work that needs to be done.

    We need to improve the technologies that are involved in these lasers, among other things. But, that said, there's a lot of focus on fusion right now, particularly in the context of the climate emergency. The Biden administration has a decadal effort to accelerate the efforts in this realm.

    Let's listen to the secretary of energy, Jennifer Granholm.

  • Jennifer Granholm, U.S. Energy Secretary:

    If we can advance fusion energy, we could use it to produce clean electricity, transportation fuels, power heavy industry, so much more. It would be like adding a power drill to our toolbox in building this clean energy economy.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    It's a nice drill, but were still a little bit away, Judy. I just want to make sure we temper the excitement a little bit.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And thank you for that, because it's easy to get our hopes up.

    So, Miles, give us about that a little bit of history of this project. You were telling us that, originally, this was all about nuclear weapons.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    Yes, this — the National Ignition Facility is all about kind of creating the circumstances inside a hydrogen bomb.

    This was created after the U.S. agreed to stop underground testing of nuclear weapons in the mid-'90s. So, in order to make the stockpile stay safe, and to ensure they can develop weapons in the future, they had figure out ways to test it. So, that's what this was built for.

    It was never built with the idea of creating commercialized energy, but, along the way, they discovered it can be done, although it is a very complex way to do it.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Miles, you were reminding us that there — or reminding us that there are other experiments out there involving nuclear fusion.

    Explain what the difference is between what that has been, what that is, and this.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    Well, this one which is designed to help bomb-makers do their job, and we get some energy out of it.

    The other idea, which was thought of initially as a way to produce civilian electricity, is called a tokamak, which is a giant racetrack, donut-style racetrack with magnets, huge facilities which create the circumstances where you can fuse these atoms in a very different way.

    And there's half-a-dozen or so these projects all around the world, public and private. And they are making steady progress. But this is tough. And, despite all the talk today about the U.S. being leaders in all this, the other — there are other nations which are kind of driving the bus on this.

    I spoke with the president of Fusion Power Associates, Steve Dean, who's been in this business for 60 years. He's sort of seen him come and he's seen them go. Listen to what he has to say.

  • Stephen Dean, President, Fusion Power Associates:

    So most of the money and most of the effort is not here, in spite of how we all think of ourselves as always been in the lead and everything.

    The Chinese are way ahead of us. The U.K. is way ahead of us. And Japan is right in the mix. So, all you hear about in the U.S. is U.S., U.S., U.S., but, really, the momentum for fusion right now is overseas.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    That said, there are more than 30 private fusion companies in the world, and most of them are in the U.S. There's about a $2.5 billion investment there.

    Meanwhile, the government is spending about a billion dollars a year to advance this technology. But, Judy, I should remind you, the old joke among physics — physicists is, fusion is 20 years off, and it always will be.

    It's hard to say how much we are closer today. But it seems like this is a milestone to remember.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    I actually remember a physics teacher in high school mentioning nuclear fusion.

    That was a long time ago. And you're saying there's still a lot of work to be done.

    Miles O'Brien, thank you very much.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    You're welcome, Judy.

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