By now you’ve probably seen dozens of headlines about scientists achieving a breakthrough in fusion energy this week. While the news is cause for celebration, expectations for an imminent supply of limitless clean energy should be tempered.
On December 5th, the Department of Energy’s Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory successfully achieved a net energy gain from a laser-induced fusion ignition. The reaction is the first of its kind in world history.
According to a DOE press release:
LLNL’s experiment surpassed the fusion threshold by delivering 2.05 megajoules (MJ) of energy to the target, resulting in 3.15 MJ of fusion energy output, demonstrating for the first time a most fundamental science basis for inertial fusion energy (IFE).
Make no mistake, this is an astounding scientific achievement. Researchers have been working since the 1950s to harness nuclear fusion reactions to produce energy, but until now, they have been unable to sustain a reaction that produces more energy than is required to create it.
The successful experiment officially demonstrates that what was once scientific theory is physically possible. That makes the prospect of deployable nuclear fusion energy—a nearly limitless source of clean, radioactive waste-free power—all the more realistic.
At the same time, the breakthrough is just the first step of many that must be demonstrated before fusion can be considered commercially viable. Scientists will next have to show that a fusion reaction can be created and sustained for longer than a fraction of a second, efficiently, and in a way that can produce usable electricity. Fusion developers must also demonstrate that such reactors can be cost-competitive and deployed at scale.
This brief clip from energy journalist Robert Bryce provides a good summation of the challenges that lie ahead for the nascent commercial fusion industry:
None of this is to say that continuing to invest in nuclear fusion is not a worthwhile endeavor. On the contrary, the potential for fusion to provide the silver bullet solution to humanity’s energy needs is too great to pass up, even if it is still many years from viability. Fortunately, billions of dollars in public and private investment continue to pour into the industry.
In the meantime, we should refrain from allowing impressive early-stage breakthroughs to deter us from continuing to invest in the nuclear technology already commercially available and proven at scale.
Fusion may ultimately be our future. But fission holds the key to our more immediate clean energy needs.