US Laboratory Reports Breakthrough in Nuclear Fusion Ignition

Fusion development could pave the way for carbon-free energy


In a first, California-based Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory’s (LLNL) National Ignition Facility (NIF) produced more energy from fusion ignition than the laser energy used to drive it, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) said.

The technique in which two lighter nuclei merge to form a single heavier nucleus while releasing a large amount of energy is termed fusion. LLNL has been studying the use of lazer to induce fusion in a laboratory setting since 1960.

The milestone is a crucial breakthrough for a future with clean power. It will also aid research and developments in the country’s defense sector.

Nuclear power plants worldwide currently use fission, or the splitting of heavy atoms like uranium to release energy for electricity. On the contrary, a fusion power plant generates energy by fusing (blending/ joining) two atoms of deuterium and tritium, two isotopes of hydrogen which is the lightest element.

The DOE said that the discovery will provide useful insights into clean fusion energy and fuel the country’s efforts in achieving the goal of a carbon-free economy.

The experiment at National Ignition Facility (NIF) surpassed the fusion threshold and delivered 2.05 megajoules (MJ) of energy, yielding 3.15 MJ of fusion energy output. The DOE said that the results demonstrate a most fundamental scientific basis for inertial fusion energy (IFE).

LLNL Director Kim Budil said, “Crossing this threshold is the vision that has driven 60 years of dedicated pursuit— a continual process of learning, building, expanding knowledge and capability, and then finding ways to overcome the new challenges that emerged.”

Given the potential of IFE system in decarbonization, the DOE with the private-sector investment has restarted a coordinated IFE program in the U.S. to drive fusion commercialization.

U.S. Secretary of Energy Jennifer M. Granholm observed, “The Biden-Harris Administration is committed to supporting our world-class scientists—like the team at NIF—whose work will help us solve humanity’s most complex and pressing problems, like providing clean power to combat climate change and maintaining a nuclear deterrent without nuclear testing.”

According to the Energy Information Administration, power generated from renewable sources totaled 795 million MWh in the U.S. in 2021, surpassing the 778 million MWh of electric power generated from nuclear reactors.

In August, the U.S. announced two programs that will drive more than $23 billion in investments to expand the capacity of the power grid and deploy cheaper, cleaner energy. They include measures to save nuclear power plants from retiring, which provide the nation’s biggest share of carbon-free electricity.