Target chamber for laser fusion
The National Ignition Facility’s target chamber at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. Photo by Damien Jemison for the laboratory

The U.S. Department of Energy is expected to announce on Tuesday that scientists in California have made a breakthrough in fusion energy, the process that powers the sun and could provide clean and limitless electricity, sources with knowledge of the matter said.

The scientists at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in the Bay Area have achieved a net energy gain for the first time in a fusion experiment using lasers. London’s Financial Times newspaper first reported the success.

The breakthrough took place at the National Ignition Facility, a project that began in 1997.

Fusion works when nuclei of two atoms are subjected to extreme heat of 180 million degrees or higher, causing 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 make the process self sustaining and 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 the generation of carbon-free electricity which could help in the fight against climate change without the amounts of 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 the 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 1 p.m. Pacific time on a “major scientific breakthrough.”

The department has no information ahead of the briefing, a spokesperson said.

Investors including Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos and John Doerr have poured money into companies building fusion technology. Private industry secured more than $2.8 billion last year for fusion, according to the Fusion Industry Association for a total of about $5 billion in recent years.


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Ellen Bullock