A national lab achieved a ‘Wright Brothers moment’ in nuclear fusion

Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory announced a key achievement in fusion research Tuesday. Fusion, the lesser-known opposite reaction to nuclear fission, is when two atoms slam together to form a heavier atom and release energy. It is the way the sun makes energy.

“Our result is a significant step forward in understanding what is required for it to work. To me, this is a Wright Brothers moment,” Omar A. Hurricane, chief scientist for the Inertial Confinement Fusion Program at the laboratory in Livermore, California, told CNBC.

“It’s not practical, but we got off the ground for a moment,” Hurricane said.

The lab announced Tuesday that on Aug. 8, it produced 1.3 megajoules of energy at its National Ignition Facility, albeit very briefly.

At the National Ignition Facility, which is the size of three football fields, superpowerful laser beams re-create the temperatures and pressures similar to those in the cores of stars and giant planets and inside exploding nuclear weapons, a spokesperson told CNBC.

On Aug. 8, a laser light was focused onto a target the size of a BB, which resulted in “a hot-spot the diameter of a human hair, generating more than 10 quadrillion watts of fusion power for 100 trillionths of a second,” the written statement says.

What’s key is that the results make “a significant step toward ignition,” said a statement from the lab.

“Ignition is a tipping point in the fusion process where the fusion heats itself and overwhelms all the cooling losses that can occur,” Hurricane told CNBC. “Once this happens, a feedback process is generated where heating creates more fusion, which creates more heating, which creates more fusion, and so on.”

Getting to the place where a fusion reaction makes more energy than it uses, ignition, is something of a holy grail for companies that are trying to commercialize fusion and sell it as a clean energy source.

Whether or not the Livermore experiment was able to do that — to generate “net energy” — is “complicated because the answer depends upon where one starts the accounting for the energy input,” Hurricane said.

“The bottom line is that very little energy ever makes it into the fusion fuel as compared to the electricity we used to charge the laser,” Hurricane said.

“As a result, there is zero net energy gain as compared to the electricity we pulled to do the experiments. This is one of the reasons why I view our scheme as not being practical for energy production,” he said. “However, the fusion energy generated was about 5 times the energy absorbed by the capsule and about 70 percent of the laser energy shot at the target — these are the significant aspects.”

The results have not been published in a peer-reviewed journal, but that process will occur, the lab said. Typically, news announcements are tied to publications in peer-reviewed journals, but “news was spreading because of the scale of this achievement, so we felt it was important to put out the facts,” a spokesperson told CNBC.

A key milestone, but a long way to go for fusion

The news certainly represents progress, but it does not signal a sea change in how energy will be generated in the immediate future.

“The current experiment produces a large amount of power ... but only for a very short time ... and as yields increase, experiments like this will produce more power for longer durations, important steps on the road to commercial power production, which would require net positive power production for long durations of time,” said Brett Rampal, director of nuclear innovation for the Clean Air Task Force, an energy policy think tank.

“There’s still a long way to go,” Rampal said.

Andrew Holland, the CEO of the Fusion Industry Association, was enthusiastic about Tuesday’s announcement.

“Proving ignition is the ‘Kitty Hawk Moment’ for fusion energy,” Holland told CNBC.

“It will prove that we can unleash fusion energy for power production on Earth,” Holland says. “It will provide deep scientific understanding of how fusion works, and that will help all fusion developers better build their power plants.”

Hurricane, however, was more cautious about seeing fusion as an answer to a need for clean energy.

“While our team is very excited about this result, because it is a hard-won science/engineering achievement, I don’t see it as being useful for a clean energy source. The learning from our result may, however, be relevant,” Hurricane told CNBC.

“I am very concerned, in general, about fusion being hyped as a solution for climate change,” he said. “My personal opinion is that fusion energy is still a future technology, so it would be foolish for people bet the planet on fusion addressing the immediate climate concerns.”

Also noteworthy, research at the Livermore lab’s National Ignition Facility is part of the Stockpile Stewardship Program, a government effort born in 1995 to study aging nuclear weapons without nuclear testing.

“One of the original visions for the NIF was for it to be a substitute for underground nuclear testing, keeping weapons scientists tethered to the reality of experiment so that the nation can depend upon their skills, knowledge and, most importantly, judgment,” Hurricane said. “This new result helps support that vision.”