Fusion power achieved an important scientific breakthrough last year. Does this bring it one step closer to being a commercially-viable new source of energy?
November 24, 2023
“You spend a lot of time as a scientific researcher planning for success. It’s a little different when it actually happens.”
Fusion power has long been the Holy Grail of the energy industry. It would provide a reliable source of power that could serve baseload demand, it would produce no emissions, and it could be implemented at a massive scale. It would be the best of both worlds: clean and renewable, but also consistent and reliable.
Yet fusion has also been incredible difficult to pull off. It requires an incredible amount of input energy in order to safely ignite a fusion reaction. And that energy that goes in has always been significantly more than the energy output that was later generated by that reaction. It makes no economical sense to consume more power than fusion could generate. So the technology still has yet to achieve any commercial-scale deployment.
But in the research lab, things are beginning to show quite a bit of promise. And late last year, something incredible happened.
The Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory announced on December 13, 2022 that it had achieved a scientific breakthrough. For the very first time, it had conducted a controlled experiment that produced more energy from the fusion reaction than its lasers consumed to drive it.
For the first time, we had successfully completed a fusion reaction that demonstrated a net energy gain. The lab then replicated the experiment’s success again in June 2023.
It sends the energy to capacitors, which is multiplexed into individual laser beams and then those laser beams are amplified. This only takes 5 milliseconds. Each laser infrared is now UV light at 2 million joules, and then focused and turned into Xrays. It then hits a diamond-covered capsule, and deuterium and tritium fuels are produced in the middle.
Roger that. So we’re sending energy in multiple streams to lasers, which are concentrated on a very small capsule to produce fusion. And then capturing that fusion energy and converting it into usable energy for our power grid.
But the setup and the complexity of the fusion experiment are insane. Budil went on to explain what all was required:
“The national ignition facility is the size of 3 football fields. It is 10 stories tall, requires 330 megajoules of power, and then produces 2 million joules of laser energy. From there, we target all of that energy to a diameter of just one centimeter. This creates an extremely high energy density.”
This fusion reaction will likely go down as one of the most impressive engineering accomplishments of our human history. Its design is impressive by itself. Yet it implications could be even grander.
The reaction consumed around 2 million joules of energy to conduct, then created around 3.5 million joules of fusion energy output.
That means the net energy gain — calculated by dividend the 3.5 MJ of energy output by the 2 MJ of energy input — was roughly 2X.
Yet Budil was also quick to remind us that her lab experiment was conducted in the interest of scientific research. They wanted to learn about the reaction and then improve the experiment’s design in order to iteratively improve it.
We’re still very far away from fusion going mainstream. In order to justify the costs, a commercial-scale power plant would require an energy gain of closer to 40X in order to be economically viable.
It’s exciting to see the reaction be safely completed and for “the physics to have been validated.” Now, all eyes will turn to whether fusion can actually be brought to a commercial scale.
One source of cost savings could be in improving the overall yield of the experiment. It took Lawrence Livermore around seven months to set up the experiment, which included getting an ignition-quality target (the capsule) sourced and prepared. That requires a lot of “human touch labor”, which are largely fixed costs that could scale with higher volumes.
Another avenue could be improving the efficiency of the lasers. LLNL’s lasers are currently operating at around 1-3% efficiency, though they could theoretically improve to around “mid-teen” efficiency. Higher laser efficiency would mean there’s less input power needed in order to ignite the reaction
A third possibility could be reducing the magnitude of the experiment. LLNL is currently attempting to reduce the total power required by the ignition facility to run the experiment from 330 megajoules to just 2.2 megajoules. A smaller scale reaction could provide a better overall yield.
The fusion scientific breakthrough surmounted some difficult technical hurdles. Now comes the fun part; where it gains the attention of private power producers who might consider fusion as an technology in their arsenal.
It’s first worth noting that this laser-based reaction from NNRL is competing against several other renewable technologies; including even other nuclear technologies.
Another fusion technology that’ currently being pursued by companies like Commonwealth Energy Systems, uses the tokamak process. Think of this as an extremely high-tech donut, which uses superconducting magnets to tightly pull atoms together and ignite a fusion reaction. In the tokamak process, the equipment is directly exposed to the reaction; which could turn out to be a big technical challenge for them to overcome.
There is also nuclear fission, which is already at commercial-scale and actively being used in power plants across the world. Some companies such as NuScale Power (NYSE: SMR) are looking to miniaturize fission process by designing small modular reactors.
While SMRs would certainly be faster and less expensive than the $20 billion+ required for a full-scale nuclear power plan, their economics are still nowhere near being close. NuScale just announced it would be shutting down both of its demonstration projects in Utah and in Idaho. And while the DOE itself could afford to fund and build a dozen or more SMR power plants just to satisfy its own internal facility demands, it’s balking at doing so because there are so many other renewable energy technologies to choose from.
Ultimately, it will be in the hands of the power producers in the private sector to determine which technologies they want to invest in. And aside from last year’s exciting technological breakthrough, it’s hard for them to justify going all-in on nuclear right now.
Individual investors should similarly manage their expectations. Even Kim believes there won’t be a demonstration fusion power plant built for another 20 years. “Most of the companies pursuing this will fail. The plasmas are really hard, the programs are expensive, and it will require significant funding from patient investors.”
Though the Department of Energy’s budget is limited and progress has been slow, it was still a good year for the scientists dedicated to fusion power. And now, as a society, we’re one step closer to it becoming a commercial reality.
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