Fusion Fuels the Future

A nuclear energy breakthrough could be a key step in the United States’ path to net zero.

On December 5, scientists at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in Livermore, California reached a new milestone, achieving the first fusion ignition to have a net positive output of energy. 192 lasers were fired into a small cylinder containing hydrogen atoms, fusing them together to form helium. 

Nuclear fusion is a form of energy that, up until now, has mostly been theoretical as a viable energy source. It involves combining two nuclei to form a singular nucleus; a process that releases energy due to the change in mass. The main issue concerning nuclear scientists is that this reaction has never produced more energy than it has taken to start it. At around 1 a.m. on December 5 at the National Ignition Facility at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, they were able to overcome this barrier for a split-second, generating three megajoules of energy while only inputting 2.05 megajoules. They did this by activating a total of 192 high-energy lasers on a tiny hydrogen capsule, creating a temperature and pressure similar to that of a star. 

This recent development is so significant due to its implications for clean energy in the future. Nuclear fusion doesn’t release any carbon into the atmosphere. And unlike nuclear fission, the more well-known form of nuclear power, fusion doesn’t create toxic waste. In a press conference on December 13 following the breakthrough, U.S. Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm underscored the importance of nuclear energy advancement, stating that, “Simply put, this is one of the most impressive scientific feats of the 21st century.” 

While this is a huge success in nuclear fusion, scientists still have a long way to go until it can be used as a mainstream form of energy. Garfield’s Environmental Science and Physics teacher Ms. Miller predicted that “it’ll probably be another at least 50 to 100 years before we might be able to harness energy from a fusion reactor.” One reason for this is the fact that it required a lot of energy to just turn on the lasers. “Although they were able to produce more energy than was put in by the lasers…There was 99 percent more energy needed to even run those lasers,” Miller said. In addition, while improvements in nuclear fusion lead to more opportunities for clean energy, it also creates the potential for fusion to be used in warfare. “It could make technology available that could be used to create fusion bombs,” Miller added.

Despite the long road ahead in nuclear fusion, this recent development represents the culmination of decades of work from scientists. “Researchers at Livermore and around the world have been working on this moment for more than 60 years,” Secretary Granholm said. “This milestone moves us one significant step closer to the possibility of zero carbon, abundant, fusion energy powering our society.”