The U.S. Department of Energy is expected to announce a major breakthrough in nuclear fusion research on Tuesday morning.
Word of the expected news is already out, as the Financial Times reported yesterday that the National Ignition Facility at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory achieved net energy gain in a fusion reaction. That means more energy was produced from the reaction than it took to power the reaction.
Though the research finding is just that—i.e., a result with no immediate consequences for our energy infrastructure—it is a necessary milestone for any society seeking what’s often referred to as the holy grail of energy research: a zero-carbon energy source that produces far more power than it requires to operate. In other words, and with quite a few caveats, unlimited power.
The press conference on December 13 at 10 a.m. ET will be broadcast live on the Department of Energy’s website (stream embedded above). The press conference will feature U.S. Secretary of Energy Jennifer M. Granholm and the department’s Under Secretary for Nuclear Security and National Nuclear Security Administration Administrator Jill Hruby.
Per the Financial Times’ reporting, it’s expected that the DOE will announce that a reaction at the National Ignition Facility produced more energy than it took to catalyze the reaction. Issues of scale, cost, timeline, and manifold other matters notwithstanding, it’s a momentous and long-awaited event.
Alongside the DOE officials will be White House Office of Science and Technology Policy Director Arati Prabhakar, NNSA Deputy Administrator for Defense Programs Marvin Adams, and Kim Budil, the director of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.
It’s a big month for the laboratory. Last week, research published in Nature revealed a 2-million-year-old paleoenvironment in Northern Greenland, one resurrected from the oldest-yet-known DNA. The DNA was frozen in permafrost, and isotopes in the soil were dated using the laboratory’s Center for Accelerator Mass Spectrometry.
Besides the holy grail label, another trope of nuclear fusion is that the technology is always just beyond the horizon; 30-year and 50-year benchmarks are often bandied out when scientists are asked when fusion will power the world. We’ll have to wait and see whether that far-off goal feels any closer to reality.