Fusion Ignition Finally Achieved! What Does That Mean?

On December 13th, 2022 The U.S. Department of Energy announced that the National Ignition Facility achieved fusion ignition for the first time in history.

Fusion Ignition, also known as scientific energy breakeven, means that a fusion reaction that took place inside of a fusion reactor, produced more energy than was put in to drive it.

Why is Fusion Considered the Holy Grail of Energy?

Fusion power is an experimental form of power generation that harnesses the energy released when two atoms combine.

In theory, fusion power has a nearly inexhaustible supply of fuel, is environmentally friendly, and has a high degree of safety.

Achieving ignition means that scientists are one step closer to harnessing the atomic power of the stars and producing cheap, abundant, clean energy for all mankind.

But there’s still a long way to go…

The Record Breaking Shot

In a NIF ignition experiment, a tiny capsule containing two isotopes of hydrogen, deuterium (D) and tritium (T) are heated by lasers to temperatures of more than 3 million degrees Celsius

To create a fusion reaction, the team at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory fire 192 high energy lasers at a tiny capsule of hydrogen fusion fuel.

In one billionth of a second, the lasers compress the capsule to densities and temperatures greater than the core of the sun. Perfectly extreme conditions for hydrogen to fuse into helium. When two atoms fuse together to create one heavier element, a tremendous amount of energy is released.

But heating fusion fuels to astronomically high temperatures requires a tremendous input of power.

To create fusion, the NIF lasers use 1,000 times more power than the United States uses at any instant in time. /Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory

On December 5th, 2022, the NIF lasers delivered 2.05 megajoules MJ of energy to the target, resulting in 3.15 MJ of fusion energy output. 

They didn’t just breakeven, they produced 153% more energy than they put in.

Previously, the most successful fusion experiments were only able to produce about 70% as much energy as was put in to heat the fusion fuel.

When will fusion be viable?

Even a 1.5X (153%) net energy gain is not enough for fusion power to become a practically viable source of electricity generation.

For fusion power plants to become commercially viable, you need to extract more usable electricity, than it takes to run the whole fusion power plant.

This undated image provided by the National Ignition Facility at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory shows the NIF Target Bay in Livermore, Calif.

To do this, the rate of energy production by fusion must not only exceed the rate of thermodynamic losses, but also produce enough of a surplus to overcome all the various energy overheads in a fusion facility to produce net electricity.

This includes boilers, chillers, air compressors, pumps, electrical equipment, control systems, and by some definitions…even the coffee maker in the break room.

Some experts believe you need a 10, 20 or even 100X energy gain to create a viable fusion power plant.

Many advanced science and technology developments are still needed to achieve simple, affordable inertial confinement fusion to power homes and businesses, and DOE is currently restarting a broad-based, coordinated IFE program in the United States.  

Department of Energy

The future of fusion

The energy from fusion is released mostly as heat. In order to put fusion power on the grid, you still need to convert this heat into electricity.

Thermal power sources 🔥 such as traditional nuclear power ☢️, fossil fuels ⛽️, geothermal 🌋, biofuels 🍃, and concentrated solar power ☀️ all generate electricity 🔌⚡️ the same way we’ve been doing it since the 1800’s. Using heat to generate steam, that spins a turbine connected to a generator.

Many experimental approaches to generating electricity from fusion function in a similar fashion.

Helion Energy, one of the leading private sector fusion companies, has an interesting approach called direct energy conversion.

Our focus from the beginning was, can we take electricity directly from the fusion fuel, from the charged particles, from the plasma, from the magnetic field, and turn that into electricity directly without steam turbines.

-David Kirtley CEO Helion Energy

We provided an in-depth look at Helion Energy in a previous Electric Future video How This Fusion Reactor Will Make Electricity by 2024.

Department of Energy Says:

“This is a landmark achievement for the researchers and staff at the National Ignition Facility who have dedicated their careers to seeing fusion ignition become a reality, and this milestone will undoubtedly spark even more discovery,”

U.S. Secretary of Energy Jennifer M. Granholm.

In the 1960s, a group of pioneering scientists at LLNL hypothesized that lasers could be used to induce fusion in a laboratory setting. Led by physicist John Nuckolls, who later served as LLNL director from 1988 to 1994, this revolutionary idea became inertial confinement fusion, kicking off more than 60 years of research and development in lasers, optics, diagnostics, target fabrication, computer modeling and simulation, and experimental design.

To pursue this concept, LLNL built a series of increasingly powerful laser systems, leading to the creation of NIF, the world’s largest and most energetic laser system. NIF—located at LLNL in Livermore, Calif.—is the size of a sports stadium and uses powerful laser beams to create temperatures and pressures like those in the cores of stars and giant planets, and inside exploding nuclear weapons.

Department of Energy