A team of scientists working out of the Livermore National Laboratory in California, have broken a scientific threshold in fusion energy.
For the first time ever, fusion energy exceeded the amount of input energy.
Shaunavon’s Dennis Whyte is the director of the Plasma Science and Fusion Centre at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and his team made major contributions to the breakthrough.
"[The Livermore National Laboratory in California] hosts the site, but in fact the effort is a national level effort," Whyte said. “That's actually why it's also such a great thing to see, because all of that enormous effort and developing the technology and implementing the facility, the education of the students, and the fact that they came through places like MIT to be able to get there is just – it's kind of amazing.”
Whyte explained that fusion energy is the process that powers the sun, by pushing together hydrogen (the most abundant element in the universe) and creates an entirely new element – helium. This lets out enormous amounts of energy and is the reason the sun stays hot for billions of years.
"So, on Earth we know that this would mean an inexhaustible source of power and energy because you can just get the fuel out of water, because that's basically a heavy form of hydrogen," he said. “So, what we've been doing, and why it's hard to do, is that you have to recreate the special conditions which happen in the center of stars, including our own sun; that's the only place in the universe where fusion energy naturally happens.
“And in particular, it has to have temperatures within the 10s of millions of degrees Celsius, so we've been pursuing this. In fact, although it doesn't sound realistic, we've actually achieved in the laboratory, including in the labs at MIT and other places around the world, we've exceeded 100 billion degrees Celsius for these fuels and understood about how they work. What we had never actually done is gone to the point where the fusion energy which is being released exceeded the amount of energy or heat that was required to get the fuel hot.”
Whyte added that while the step is small in the grand scheme of inexhaustible energy on Earth, it tells them that they're on the right path scientifically.
“This is a scientific breakthrough," he said. “What's important is accessing these conditions—what's happening in the sun is that the energy that's released is actually keeping the fuel hot. It's a teeny, little bit of energy, but then the fuel heats the rest of the fuel, and so it burns. This is one of the first times when we started to see significant amounts of that burn, and that's really critical scientifically.”
Other major breakthroughs that were steppingstones in the same direction, include reaching a temperature of 100 million degrees Celsius and simply understanding how to deliver the energy.
While each step taken is important, fusion is still far away from being a practical energy source on Earth—and every step brings that goal closer.
Whyte said that he's not sure what frontier comes next.
“They capture the energy, make economic energy, make it reliable. All things which are fascinating problems all by themselves,” he said. “But there's a reason that we do this. Since we've figured out how stars work, we understand that fusion is actually the energy source of the universe. It's the reason that we're alive. Nobody's alive without fusion, because it's the sun that provides the energy that makes the earth habitable.
“Not to get too philosophical about it, but this means that if you can bring that to earth, because the fuel is in exhaustible and you can produce the energy without pollution or carbon emission, it scales up to be able to meet all of our energy demands. It's an incredibly important, you know, development in how we use energy. This is so important to realize: energy use is the foundation of what drives our modern lifestyle. Everything uses energy. If we can do something like this, it really changes our projections forward about how we use energy about economics about lifting a lot of people out of poverty around the world.
“It's a big deal, but we're not there yet.”