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US Scientists Will Announce a Breakthrough in Fusion Energy

A fusion reactor at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory may have reached a critical milestone.

A report from the Financial Times says that scientists at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory may have reached a new high point for fusion reactions by making even more energy than they put in during a recent test.

According to the article, scientists who "know preliminary results from a recent experiment" have talked about the results and are still looking into them. On Tuesday, December 13, there will be a big announcement at LLNL. It's likely that the Department of Energy will livestream it at about 7 a.m. PT.

The National Ignition Facility runs an experiment called "inertial confinement fusion," which involves firing almost 200 lasers straight at a tiny capsule of hydrogen. Nathan Garland, a physicist at Griffith University in Australia, says that the lasers create a plasma around the capsule. This plasma eventually causes the capsule to implode, which makes it possible for fusion reactions to happen.

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Fusion is the process that makes our sun work, and it happens when two atoms are smashed together. This needs a lot of pressure and heat, but Garland said it is "super hard" to make the same conditions in a lab.

When you combine two atoms, you get a lot of energy and, most importantly, no carbon dioxide. Unlike fission, which is used in nuclear power plants to split atoms, fusion doesn't leave any radioactive waste behind and there's no risk of a meltdown. In short, if we could use fusion power, it would change the way we think about energy and allow us to make clean energy without putting greenhouse gases into the air.

If the FT report and what people are saying on social media are right, scientists at LLNL may have achieved "fusion energy gain," which is represented by the letter Q. If Q > 1 in a fusion experiment, we're on our way to a real energy breakthrough that scientists have been hoping for for a long time. "If it's true, it's a big deal for sure," Garland said.

But, as with all science, it's best not to get too excited about results that haven't been fully looked at. We have been here before, after all. In 2013, there were rumors that the NIF had done exactly this. That wasn't true.

But NIF has made a lot of progress toward the goal in the past few years. In August 2021, scientists said that for a short time, they had made the power of the sun again through a reaction that kept going on its own. That's a good background, and it makes us at CNET Science a little more sure that the rumors are true.

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A spokesperson for LLNL told CNET, "Our analysis is still going on, so we can't provide details or confirmation at this time." The spokesperson sent CNET a link to the media advisory, which says in all caps, "MAJOR SCIENTIFIC BREAKTHROUGH."

We won't have a never-ending supply of energy because of the result. It's likely that the reaction at NIF only lasted a few milliseconds or even less. But this is just the first step toward making fusion energy a real way to power the world. It shows that Q > 1 can be reached in fusion experiments like this one.

So, I'm usually hesitant to use the word "breakthrough" when talking about cutting-edge science, especially when it comes to fusion energy, but I think it might be appropriate here. We'll have to see what happens.

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