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Fusion Ignition Achieved for 2nd Time in US

In a milestone that would have been impossible to imagine just a few years ago, scientists at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory have repeated their first-ever achievement of net energy gain in a nuclear fusion experiment. This is a huge step toward achieving what could be a nearly limitless, clean source of power for the world.

The researchers achieved the feat in an experiment conducted on July 30 at the lab’s National Ignition Facility (NIF). This facility is designed to produce the high temperatures and extreme pressures needed to achieve fusion, which powers stars like our sun. The July experiment produced a higher energy yield than the one in December that received global attention for a breakthrough in harnessing the power of fusion, which produces more energy than it takes to produce it.

To create the fusion reaction, a powerful laser system at the lab heats two isotopes of hydrogen—generally deuterium and tritium—to such extreme temperatures that their nuclei fuse into heavier atoms, releasing helium and a burst of energy. The fusion reactions at the center of our sun and other stars produce enormous amounts of energy without the long-lasting radioactive waste that nuclear fission, the type of nuclear power we use today, produces.

Although scientists have been working on fusion for decades, the breakthrough in producing more energy than is put into the reaction is a significant milestone, according to White House science adviser Arati Prabhakar. “This is a big step in our quest for sustainable, clean, and cheap energy,” she said. “It demonstrates that the science is sound, but there’s much more to do for fusion to become a commercially viable alternative to fossil fuels.”

The key is to produce enough energy from fusion to offset the tremendous amount required to create it at the lab, a massive undertaking that could take decades to complete. To do so, the scientists must extract as much fusion energy as they spend on the initial lasers that power the fusion reactions at their California-based lab.

During the experiment on July 30, the researchers used 3.15 megajoules of energy to create the fusion reaction; the Energy Department said about 150% of the 2.05 megajoules of lasers were used. However, the fusion reaction only lasted for about a second; creating the same results repeatedly to power a commercial fusion plant would require doing so several times per minute, officials say. Scientists must develop more efficient lasers and containment capsules to achieve this goal. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm called the latest achievement a significant milestone but noted that achieving a commercially viable power plant from fusion would still require further scientific and technological breakthroughs. She also warned that a failure to do so would increase carbon emissions and contribute to climate change.


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