WASHINGTON, Dec 12 (Reuters) – The US Department of Energy will announce on Tuesday that scientists at a national laboratory have made a breakthrough in fusion, the process powering the sun and stars that could one day provide a cheap source of electricity three sources with knowledge of the matter said.
Scientists at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California have made the first net energy gain in a laser fusion experiment, one of the people said.
While the results are a milestone in a scientific quest that has been developing since at least the 1930s, the ratio of the energy going into the Livermore reaction to the energy extracted from it must be about 100 times greater to create a process that produces commercial quantities of electricity, one of the sources said.
The FT was the first to report on the experiment.
Fusion works when the nuclei of two atoms are subjected to extreme heat of 100 million degrees Celsius (180 million Fahrenheit) or more, causing them to fuse into a new, larger atom, releasing enormous amounts of energy in the process.
But the process consumes vast amounts of energy, and the trick was to make the process self-sufficient and get more energy out than is going in, continuously rather than for brief moments.
If fusion is commercialized, which proponents say could happen in a decade or more, it would have additional benefits, including the generation of virtually carbon-free electricity that could help fight climate change without the amounts of radioactive nuclear waste produced by today’s Nuclear fission creates reactors.
However, operating a power plant with fusion energy presents major hurdles, such as how to economically contain the heat and fire the lasers constantly. Other fusion methods use magnets instead of lasers.
Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm is scheduled to hold a media briefing on a “major scientific breakthrough” at 10:00 a.m. EST (1500 GMT) on Tuesday.
The department has no information ahead of the briefing, a spokesman said.
Lawrence Livermore focuses primarily on national security issues related to nuclear weapons, and the fusion experiment could lead to safer testing of the national arsenal of such bombs.
But advances in the labs could also help the efforts of companies hoping to develop fusion-powered power plants, including Commonwealth Fusion Systems, Focused Energy and General Fusion.
Investors like Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, and John Doerr have poured money into companies building mergers. According to the Fusion Industry Association, private industry secured more than $2.8 billion last year for a total of about $5 billion in recent years.
Reporting by Timothy Gardner; Edited by Philippa Fletcher, Marguerita Choy and Richard Chang
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