WASHINGTON (Reuters/CNN) – The U.S. Department of Energy will announce on Tuesday that scientists at a national lab have made a breakthrough on fusion energy, the process that powers the sun and stars that one day could provide a cheap source of electricity, two sources with knowledge of the matter said.
The scientists at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California have achieved a net energy gain for the first time, in a fusion experiment using lasers, one of the people said. The FT first reported the experiment.
Fusion works when nuclei of two atoms are subjected to extreme heat of 100 million degrees Celsius or higher leading them to fuse into a new larger atom, giving off enormous amounts of energy. But the process consumes vast amounts of energy and the trick has been to get more energy out than goes in and to do so continuously instead of brief moments.
If fusion is commercialized, which backers say could happen in a decade or more, it would have additional benefits including producing energy without radioactive nuclear waste that today’s fission reactors produce.
Running an electric power plant off fusion presents tough hurdles however such as how to contain that heat economically and to keep lasers firing consistently. Other methods of fusion use magnets instead of lasers.
Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm is slated to hold a media briefing on Tuesday at 10:00 EST (1500 GMT) on a “major scientific breakthrough.” The department has no information ahead of the briefing, a spokesperson said.
Private industry secured more than $2.8 billion dollars last year for fusion, according to the Fusion Industry Association for a total of about $5 billion in recent years.
The big challenge of harnessing fusion energy is sustaining it long enough so that it can power electric grids and heating systems around the globe.
A UK fusion scientist told CNN that the result of the US breakthrough is promising, but also shows more work needs to happen to make fusion able to generate electricity on a commercial scale.
“They have worked on the design and the makeup of the target and the shape of the energy pulse to get much better results,” Tony Roulstone, from the University of Cambridge’s Department of Engineering, told CNN.
“The opposing argument is that this result is miles away from actual energy gain required for the production of electricity. Therefore, we can say (it) is a success of the science but a long way from providing useful energy.”