Fusion power has eluded energy scientists for decades. Now, for the first time, following two recent successful experiments at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, there is good reason to believe that fusion power at scale could become a reality.
On 5 December last year, something historic happened. Researchers at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory successfully performed a process that had eluded other researchers for decades. For the first time, a fusion of atomic nuclei was achieved that produced more energy than the energy required to produce the process.
The team at Lawrence Livermore successfully replicated the results of the December experiment in a second test developed on July 30th this year.
Constantin Häfner, head of the expert commission and the Fraunhofer Institute for Laser Technology ILT Aachen, has worked with fusion technology for many years and describes the success of the Lawrence Livermore experiments as “groundbreaking”.
“The team provided actual scientific proof of fusion energy for the first time. This has never been done before in a laboratory. It shows that that the models and predictions the physicists have developed are all accurate. This is the main breakthrough.”
Excess energy is the goal
Scientists have struggled to create a functioning fusion process for many years, unlike fission, the basis for today’s nuclear power, where heavy atomic nuclei of uranium or plutonium are split.
This challenge was finally overcome at Lawrence Livermore: the generation of excess energy. The technology and process of fusion has existed for a long time and since combining (fusing) light atomic nuclei, for example hydrogen, releases enormous amounts of energy.
Sounds easy, right? Wrong. In simple terms, fusion is based on the same process that powers the Sun – and other similar stars – and thus requires extreme heat and high pressure. To recreate such an environment, powerful lasers have been used, among other things, which require large amounts of energy, and until now, typically more energy than has been released by fusion. In the experiments at Lawrence Livermore, researchers finally managed to produce excess energy: 3.15 megajoules were released in fusion while the laser required 2.0 megajoules.
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Lighter atomic nuclei set to be cheaper
One of the advantages that fusion has over fission is that the atoms used are lighter and more readily available – it is clearly easier to work with hydrogen than uranium. Although the process of fusing atomic nuclei requires conditions that are hard to create, it could also potentially be cheaper than fission in terms of safety costs.
“The are fewer risks with fusion, which means that the costs associated with it will be lower,” says Häfner.
“There’ll probably be less need for governmental regulation as well. A few countries, the US for example, have already amended their regulatory frameworks to reflect the fact that the fusion process is not the same as fission in terms of risk levels and should therefore be treated differently. I believe that this should make it easier to attract industry investment in fusion technology and power plants. But that’s still a long way off. Take my answer more as a vision for the future rather than accepted knowledge. It all depends on how we build regulatory and licensing frameworks.”
Could be produced on a larger scale within 25 years
If everything – funding, laws and regulations, technology, engineering – were to fall into place, there are considerable gains to be made. Fusion power has the potential to rapidly make the entire energy system fossil-free. Häfner also believes that it could be entirely possible to scale up production, to create actual fusion power plants, but this will require a lot of effort.
“There are three important steps to harvesting energy and electricity from fusion plants. The first one is scientific gain, that means you have to produce a plasma that produces more energy than it takes to prepare it. Then there is engineering gain, where you account for losses in other parts of the process – energy transformation for example. Then there is the economic gain, which means you need to be able to sell energy to the market at a competitive price compared to other power sources.
The road to a process with the scientific energy breakeven that was achieved at the beginning of December last year and again in July has been long and lined with failures, but Häfner is now all the more positive about the potential timeline of fusion being possible at a larger scale. In the best case, he believes that this could be as soon as 25-30 years.
“This is a question of investment and availability of talent. I think what it’ll take will be a fusion energy innovation system and if governments commit to that, provide the necessary regulatory framework and encourage new technologies, along with long-term funding, we could get there relatively quickly. We will need maybe 10 to 15 years of technological development and a similar amount of time again to create and trial a preliminary fusion power plant.”
Fission and fusion
The basis of nuclear power is fission, where large amounts of energy are released by using neutrons, under controlled conditions, to split atomic nuclei. Ever since the world’s first nuclear power plant entered service in the 1950s, fission has been the dominant method for extracting energy from atomic nuclei.
The opposite of fission – fusion – has, however, proven to be significantly harder to master.
Fusion is based on recreating the process found at the core of the Sun – and other stars – where atoms merge to release enormous amounts of energy.
A major difference between fission and fusion is that the former requires heavier atomic nuclei (such as uranium and plutonium), while fusion is possible with lighter and more widely available atomic nuclei such as hydrogen. To be able to join these cores, however, very special circumstances are required: both extreme temperatures and high pressure, two factors that in themselves require a lot of energy to create. Until now, fusion projects have thus produced negative results, i.e., the process itself has required more energy than the amount of energy the fusion subsequently produced.