Editor’s Note: Don Lincoln is a senior scientist at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory. He is the author of several science books for general audiences, including the best-selling audio book “The Theory of Everything: The Quest to Explain All Reality.” He also produces a series of science education videos. Follow him on Facebook. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely his. View more opinion on CNN.
On December 5, ultra-powerful lasers were fired on a pellet the size of a peppercorn containing a mix of deuterium and tritium – which are components of the fuel that powers the sun. The 192 lasers heated the tiny BB-sized object to temperatures hotter than the sun’s center, and for a fraction of a second, a tiny star was formed. Then, just as quickly, it winked out of existence. This technological triumph was made possible by decades of efforts of thousands of researchers.
The feat was achieved at the National Ignition Facility at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California. Mind you, this wasn’t the first time that researchers have observed fusion in a laboratory, but it was the first time using this technique that the process surpassed “break even,” which means that the fusing elements released more energy than the lasers supplied.
This is a monumental step for science and a spectacular technical achievement. Since scientists first observed nuclear fusion back in the 1930s, it has been known that it could provide essentially limitless energy. And, especially relevant in this day and age of concerns about global warming and climate change, it is a carbon-free technology.
When fusion becomes commercially viable, humanity’s energy needs will be supplied for the foreseeable future. And, as an icing on the cake, a fusion power plant cannot have an accidental radiation release in the way that happened at Chernobyl or Fukushima. Energy and safety are a great combination.
Now, this recent achievement doesn’t mean that fusion powerplants are just around the corner. While the energy released in the process was 50% greater than the energy supplied by the lasers, this is just part of the energy budget. When all of the equipment powering the experiment is taken into account, the energy released in the fusion process was only about 1% of the total energy used. And there are major technical problems that still need to be solved before an energy-rich utopia is achieved. After all, a single pulse isn’t a power station – the process has to be repeated again and again. And engineers need to construct a containment structure that can survive the bath of neutrons that a functional fusion generator will create. We must manage expectations.
So, what will the future bring? Well, that’s up to us. It’s going to take ongoing effort to develop fusion technology to a point that it will one day power the electric grid. If we give the fusion researchers the support they need, they will undoubtedly one day turn this recent advance into a useful and very powerful source of energy.
To understand how we’ll get where we want to be, we need to look to the past. This recent technical achievement wasn’t a quick one. It was the result of half a century of effort. Scientists have devoted their careers, indeed their lives, to trying to achieve this goal. John Nuckolls first proposed using lasers as a way to create a fusion reactor in 1957, but the idea was a pipe dream back then.
Over the past 65 years researchers developed the necessary technology, and that wouldn’t have been possible without sustained government support. In the US, the primary funding agency for nuclear energy research is the Department of Energy (DOE), which funds a number of national labs, some of which are doing fusion research, as well an array of research programs at many of the country’s leading universities. In addition, commercial companies have worked on the problem, but the majority of the support has been from the DOE. (Full disclosure: I am a senior scientist at a DOE lab, but not one that does fusion research.)
The National Ignition Facility was never intended to be a commercial power plant. It was designed as a science facility, which means that reliability and versatility were important design considerations. The goal was to exploit the system’s versatility to develop the technique of laser-induced fusion. And, while this recent success is a demonstration that laser-induced fusion is a possible path forward, other technological hurdles still remain. Researchers have taken a big step, but the journey is not yet complete. A commercial fusion reactor will require more effort and investment and it’s still a few decades away.
Fusion isn’t tomorrow’s green technology – for that we’ll need solar, wind and nuclear fission – but it is the future. The amount of energy that fusion can deliver simply dwarfs the alternatives. Nuclear energy releases millions of times as much energy as other forms and fusion is much more powerful than fission – that’s why hydrogen bombs are more destructive than atomic ones.
Given the pressing need to find future clean energy sources, I believe that it is imperative that fusion research be given stable and ample support. Since the mid-1990s, the US government has provided an annual budget of about half a billion dollars per year, adjusted to today’s dollars. While that sounds like a lot of money, it’s tiny compared to the direct government subsidies for the fossil fuel industry, which amounts to $20.5 billion per year, with some estimate for indirect subsidies being much higher. If the fusion scientific community had been funded at such levels, fusion power plants could well have been a reality today.
We should all congratulate the fusion community for their recent success and look forward to seeing what they come up with next.