Scientists at the National Ignition Facility in California generated a fusion reaction in the lab, in which more energy was released than was absorbed; a world first.
Those same physicists have already managed to extract a small amount of energy from their fusion process in January. They have now scaled up production, and report this week that the reaction now produces 20% more net energy than it uses. A great amount of energy is required: The world’s largest laser fires 192 beams at a sphere with a 10-meter diameter. Inside that sphere is a cylinder, containing a small fuel capsule.
Nuclear fusion, as occurs in stars, has been promising humanity a clean and powerful alternative to existing energy sources for decades. Current nuclear reactors employ nuclear fission; blasting the nuclei of atoms apart.
For decades, physicists have worked towards this prized goal. In Europe, there was test model JET, followed by the much more powerful test reactor ITER, which is currently being built in France and should be completed in 2035. Only the follow-up reactor DEMO, expected around 2050, will be able to serve as a power plant that actually generates energy in a usable way.
So are we getting closer to a revolution for industrial and domestic energy supply? And would this herald an age of free energy? revolution for industrial and domestic energy supply?
‘Nonsense’, responds physicist Marco de Baar of the Dutch energy research institute Differ, and also involved in the ITER project. “All those headlines that say that we have almost solved the energy problem really scares me.” He calls the expectations that such messages arouse dangerous. “Politicians will soon think that we no longer need to do anything about the energy problem because a revolution is imminent.”
However, he notes this week’s breakthrough in the United States experiment is great achievement. “What they have done here is scientifically really clever, and technically very interesting,” he says.