Major breakthrough in fusion is a game-changer for clean energy
“This is a really significant development,” said Whyte, director of MIT’s Plasma Science and Fusion Center. “It’s like waking up in another world.”
For decades, scientists have sought to harness the energy that powers stars, a complex atomic-level process known as nuclear fusion, which requires heating a plasma fuel to more than 100 million degrees Celsius and finding a way to contain and sustain it.
In theory, fusion can provide cheap and unlimited zero-emission electricity, without producing any significant radioactive waste, as fission does in traditional nuclear power plants.
Scientific and technical obstacles have long made that possibility a distant promise. But progress last year at MIT and elsewhere, as well as a growing number of well-funded companies developing the technology, has led some to suggest fusion could power the grid within a decade.
The breakthrough at the Livermore lab reportedly occurred at the National Ignition Facility, which uses the world’s largest lasers to test nuclear weapons. Whyte and others said the experiments found that the fusion energy generated exceeded, by small amounts, the energy that started the reaction.
With few details available Monday about the experiment, Whyte and others trying to commercialize fusion technologies tempered their enthusiasm.
“We need to see more of the data,” he said. “Understanding the details is very important.”
They also noted that producing electricity on a commercial scale would still require much more research.
“It’s very exciting, but we’re not quite there,” Whyte said. “I will be very excited when we put the first watts on the grid.”
Others were skeptical about the value of the findings for real-world use.
Edwin Lyman, director of nuclear safety at the Cambridge-based Union of Concerned Scientists, called the potential applications of the research “impractical”.
“This is not a technology that is going to provide any practical source of electricity generation in the foreseeable future,” he said. “The range of technical challenges remains formidable.”
Others questioned whether the energy produced really exceeded the amount of energy that went into the reaction, noting that the researchers did not take into account the energy it took to operate the lasers.
“This creates the false appearance that the device has produced net energy,” said Steven Krivit, author of books such as “Fusion Fiasco” and “Hacking the Atom.”
But scientists who have spent years studying fusion called such criticisms misleading.
Mike Campbell, who recently retired as director of the University of Rochester’s Laboratory for Laser Energetics, one of the world’s leading centers for fusion research, said the experiment was only intended to show that the plasma in the fusion reaction could generate more energy than it consumed. .
He acknowledged that fusion power plants are unlikely to generate electricity anytime soon, but he compared the breakthrough at the national laboratory to what the Wright brothers did in Kitty Hawk, NC
“They showed that a heavier-than-air machine could get off the ground; they didn’t design a 787,” Campbell said. “They showed that air travel was possible if you could drive it.”
He added: “When science proves that something can work, you can develop much better technologies. Engineers can produce miracles.”
The first effort to harness fusion energy came in the 1950s when Soviet physicists designed something they called a tokamak, a doughnut-shaped machine that could confine a superheated plasma using powerful magnetic fields. The machines did what they were designed to do – fusing the atomic nuclei into hydrogen isotopes to make helium, providing energy as a byproduct – but they also required enormous amounts of power.
Over the years, there have been government-led efforts to address this problem and other challenges, such as the multibillion-dollar International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor, known as ITER, which the United States and other countries are building in southern France to generate 10 times more power than it takes to generate a fusion reaction.
With that project moving slowly and at high cost, private efforts have sought to prove that fusion can be done much cheaper, faster and with a much smaller footprint. There are now dozens of companies trying to prove that fusion can be a practical power source, most of them established in the past decade, according to the four-year-old Fusion Industry Association.
Among them is Commonwealth Fusion Systems, an MIT spinoff in Cambridge, which in recent years has raised about $2 billion from investors such as Bill Gates, Google and a number of private equity firms. The company was co-founded by Whyte, whose team last year used inexpensive materials to produce the most powerful magnetic field of its kind on Earth, a critical component of a fusion reactor.
The company, which just this week began moving into its new headquarters on a former Superfund site in Devens, is using Whyte’s research to build a prototype of a specially designed fusion reactor called SPARC, which aims to produce more energy than it consumes, in 2025.
If successful, Commonwealth Fusion Systems plans to begin building its first power plant several years later. Ultimately, company officials say, their goal is to help build 10,200 megawatts of fusion power plants around the world, enough to replace nearly all fossil fuels.
Bob Mumgaard, the company’s CEO, called the breakthrough at Livermore National Laboratory “a great moment for fusion.”
“These exciting results are the culmination of years of work that demonstrate that fusion science is worth the investment,” he said. “This is an important validator for the . . . fusion industry.”
Other merger supporters said they hoped the breakthrough would lead to greater public and private investment.
U.S. Representative Lori Trahan, a Westford Democrat, urged her colleagues to allocate more money to fusion research, calling it “essential to solving the energy problems we face today.”
“For every dollar we invest in fusion energy, we accelerate the existence of fusion energy on the grid and help guarantee that our children and grandchildren inherit a livable planet,” she said in a statement.
David Abel can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @davabel.