The quest to make fusion power a reality has recently taken a huge step forward. The National Ignition Facility (NIF) at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory announced the results of an experiment with an unprecedentedly high fusion yield. A single laser shot triggered reactions that released 1.3 megajoules of fusion energy with the signature of a propagating nuclear burn.
Reaching this milestone shows how close fusion really is to achieving power generation. The latest results demonstrate the rapid pace of progress – especially as lasers are developing at a breathtaking pace.
Indeed, the laser is one of the most influential technological inventions since the end of World War II. Finding wide use in an incredibly diverse range of applications – including machining, precision surgery and consumer electronics – lasers are an essential part of everyday life. What little is known, however, is that lasers are ushering in an exciting and entirely new chapter in physics: enabling controlled nuclear fusion with positive energy gain.
After six decades of innovation, lasers are now assisting us in the urgent process of developing clean, dense and efficient fuels, which in turn help solve the world’s energy crisis through large-scale decarbonized energy production. are necessary for. The peak power achievable in a laser pulse has increased by a factor of 1,000 every decade.
Physicists recently conducted a fusion experiment that produced 1,500 terawatts of electricity. For a short period of time, it produced four to five times more energy than the entire world consumed in a given time. In other words, we are already capable of producing huge amounts of electricity. Now we also need to produce large amounts of energy to offset the energy expended to drive the ignited lasers.
Beyond lasers, there has also been considerable progress toward the goal. The recent use of nanostructured targets allows for more efficient absorption of laser energy and ignition of fuels. This has been possible only for a few years, but even here, technological innovation is growing rapidly with tremendous progress year after year.
In the face of progress like this, you might wonder what’s still holding us back from making commercial fusion a reality.
Two significant challenges remain: First, we need to bring the pieces together and create an integrated process that meets all physical and techno-economic requirements. Second, we need sustainable levels of investment from private and public sources to do this. Generally speaking, the area of fusion is very small. This is staggering, especially given the potential of fusion compared to other energy technologies.
Investments in clean energy in 2020 amounted to over $500 billion. There is only a fraction of the money going to fusion research and development. There are already countless talented scientists working in this field, as well as eager students looking to enter the field. And, of course, we have excellent government research laboratories. Collectively, researchers and students believe in the power and potential of controlled nuclear fusion. We must ensure financial support for their work to realize this vision.
Now we need to expand public and private investment that does justice to the opportunity at hand. Such investments may have a longer duration, but their end effect is not parallel. I believe net-energy gains over the next decade are within reach; Commercialization, based on the initial prototype, will be in very short order.
But such a time-frame largely depends on the availability of funding and resources. Considerable investment is being allocated to alternative energy sources – wind, solar, etc. – but fusion must have a place in the global energy equation. This is especially true as we approach the moment of critical success.
If laser-driven nuclear fusion is proven and commercialised, it has the potential to become the energy source of choice, displacing many existing, less ideal energy sources. That’s because fusion, if done properly, provides energy that is equal parts clean, safe and affordable. I am confident that fusion power plants will eventually replace most conventional power plants and the associated large-scale energy infrastructure that continues to be so influential today. There will be no need for coal or gas.
Ongoing optimization of the fusion process, resulting in higher yields and lower costs, holds promise for energy production far below the current price point. At the limit, it corresponds to a source of unlimited energy. If you have unlimited energy, you also have unlimited possibilities. What can you do with it? I hope to reverse climate change by removing the carbon dioxide that has been added to the atmosphere over the past 150 years.
With a future empowered by fusion technology, you will be able to harness energy to desalinate water, creating limitless water resources that will have a massive impact in arid and desert regions. Overall, fusion enables better societies, keeping them sustainable and clean, rather than relying on destructive, messy energy sources and associated infrastructure.
Through years of dedicated research at the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, and the National Ignition Facility, I had the privilege of observing and leading the first inertial confinement fusion experiments. I saw the seed of something remarkable being sown and taking root. I have never been more excited than I am now to see the fruits of laser technology harvested for the empowerment and advancement of mankind.
My fellow scientists and students are committed to taking fusion from the realm of the tangible to the realm of reality, but this will require a level of trust and help. A small investment today will go a long way towards providing a much needed, more welcome energy alternative to the global arena.
I’m betting on the side of optimism and science, and I hope others have the courage to do the same.