At 1:03 a.m. on Monday, the prospect of a world fueled by clean nuclear fusion took a giant leap forward.
Scientists at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, just 90 minutes from Sacramento and an hour from San Francisco, got more energy out of a controlled nuclear fusion reaction than they put into it. This was a breakthrough. No other controlled fusion experiment, based on any technology, has come close.
This staggering accomplishment was a team effort, funded by the federal government and focused on cutting-edge science in support of the Livermore Lab’s national security mission.
Over the years, the prospect of achieving clean energy through fusion has motivated a generation of scientists and engineers. They foresaw a future wherein the same principle used to release the destructive energy of a hydrogen bomb could instead be used under rigorously controlled laboratory conditions to power the world.
Californians should feel immense pride in this accomplishment at the Livermore Lab’s National Ignition Facility.
The lab, or LLNL, has been co-managed by the University of California since its beginning in the early 1950s. Many of its staff members were educated in California. LLNL’s director, Kim Budil, earned her doctorate degree from UC Davis. She was one of the four highly accomplished women who announced this breakthrough in Washington.
The nuclear fusion achievement is the culmination of 60 years of creative science and rigorous engineering. In 1972, John Nuckolls, an LLNL scientist who later became its director, postulated that fusion could be achieved by focusing lasers on a target of deuterium and tritium. The need for building a sufficiently powerful laser to realize this was recognized in the 1990s, when the U.S. stopped nuclear weapons testing and the concept of science-based nuclear stockpile stewardship was fully articulated.
The National Ignition Facility, known as NIF, was built over a 15-year span to oversee that work. Against threats, including Russia’s current nuclear saber rattling, the response from the U.S. and its allies is sustained by the deterrent capacity of our nuclear arsenal.
In our 30-year absence of testing nuclear weapons, this capacity is assured by a deep knowledge of the underlying science of how nuclear devices work, computational modeling using the world’s most advanced computers, and validation of those models with experiments such as those performed at the NIF.
The U.S. and its allies can be confident that the nuclear umbrella protecting them is safe, secure and reliable.
The breakthrough accomplished this week is a milestone that illuminates a new path. While it won’t solve the world’s energy problems overnight, it will catalyze further breakthroughs and accelerate the development of fusion energy based on the NIF technology — as well as fusion energy from competing (but so far unproven) technologies. It should inspire new generations to tackle the difficult problems associated with the world’s reliance on fossil fuels.
The NIF results demonstrate to the world that the United States is the leader in the inertial confinement fusion technology, with a significant portion of that knowledge base located here in California. We should expect our state to continue fostering cutting-edge science and technology, and to lead the world to a better future. Our institutions of higher education, our national laboratories and our future-minded industries have done this for generations.
The people who made the Livermore Lab breakthrough happen have joined a long line of scientists, engineers and innovators. They are among our best and brightest who work to ensure a secure future for our nation, a better world for everyone, and help cement California’s role as an incubator of progress in fusion science and technology.
Robert Powell is a distinguished professor at UC Davis. He chairs the science and technology committee for Lawrence Livermore National Security, the management and operating contractor for Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. The author wrote this for CalMatters, a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s Capitol works and why it matters.