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Haley Zaremba

Haley Zaremba is a writer and journalist based in Mexico City. She has extensive experience writing and editing environmental features, travel pieces, local news in the…

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Nuclear Fusion Remains Decades Away Despite Major Breakthroughs

  • Scientific advancements in nuclear fusion have experienced exponential growth in the past three years.
  • Most notably, the National Ignition Facility in California has achieved net positive energy production, a significant milestone in fusion research.
  • Despite these achievements, the commercial viability of fusion power is still distant due to high costs, regulatory obstacles, and the need for further technological advancements.
Fusion

After decades of progress so incremental and expensive that it may have seemed pointless, nuclear fusion technology finally had a breakthrough worth writing home about. Last year, a team of scientists in California was able to achieve ignition, creating more energy from a laser-driven fusion experiment than was beamed into it. The breakthrough has signaled a new era for nuclear fusion, in which the nascent technology shifted from a pipe dream ripped out of the pages of science fiction to a model of clean energy production with actual potential for practical application and scalability. But critics still question whether creating an artificial sun here on Earth will ever be affordable and energy efficient enough to make a real impact on the global energy industry. 

In the last three years, nuclear fusion breakthroughs have increased exponentially, with scientists making incredible gains across the globe in different fusion experiments, often with completely different approaches. And it all happened nearly simultaneously when looking at the long timeline of nuclear fusion experimentation. All of these breakthroughs have been critical, but three, in particular, have rewritten the narrative and made even the staunchest doubters of nuclear fusion take pause. First, in 2021, a team of researchers at the Experimental Advanced Superconducting Tokamak (EAST) in Hefei, China obliterated previous records for a sustained steady-state fusion reaction, achieving fusion for an unprecedented 1,056 seconds – nearly 20 minutes. In the same year, The Joint European Torus (JET) in Oxfordshire more than doubled its 1997 fusion record when it produced 59 megajoules of energy in a single fusion experiment. 

And then there was the aforementioned experiment in California that blew them all away. Last December, researchers at the National Ignition Facility (NIF) at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory made history when they became the first to finally overcome what remains as nuclear fusion’s most significant barrier: creating net positive energy. The now legendary experiment used lasers to beam 2.05 megajoules of light onto a minuscule amount of fusion fuel – about the size of a peppercorn – sparking an explosion that released 3.15 MJ of energy – about the same as three sticks of dynamite. 

But while the importance of this breakthrough can’t be denied, it doesn’t mean that nuclear fusion will be powering our homes any time soon. Indeed, there are a few important caveats to the magnitude of the NIF discovery. While the fusion reaction in the NIF experiment created more energy than was beamed onto the fuel, it still was a net energy drain when looking at the bigger picture. When taking into account the amount of energy used to power the lasers, the experiment was a net loss by a wide margin. Furthermore, NIF is an enormously expensive project being carried out in a national lab project funded to research nuclear weapons – hardly the same conditions that a commercial pursuit would take place in. 

In short, fusion remains enormously expensive, and the achievement of net energy production remains elusive. In fact, Wired reported last year that in all likelihood, “the real fusion energy breakthrough is still decades away.” ITER, the world’s biggest fusion experiment co-funded by 35 nations in the South of France, is already enormously over budget and behind schedule. Furthermore, the sector faces significant regulatory challenges, as current frameworks guiding nuclear fission will not be applicable to nuclear fusion. This means there is a lot of lengthy and pricey bureaucratic and policy work to be done before commercial fusion could become a possibility. 

A lot of hope has been placed in the future of nuclear fusion. Advocates of the technology have proposed that it could produce limitless emissions-free fuel, saving the world from climate crisis as well as geopolitical wars over energy. In short, it would bring us endless energy and world peace to boot. However, news of nuclear fusion’s world-saving capabilities has almost certainly been greatly exaggerated. “[The NIF breakthrough] is a big deal and fine to applaud, but it doesn't mean a green energy revolution is imminent,” CNET summarized. “It'll still be years before fusion power progress bears fruit — likely a decade or so — and it's still not clear if fusion will ever be cheap enough to radically transform our power grid. Continuing today's investments in solar and wind is critical to combating climate change.”

By Haley Zaremba for Oilprice.com

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