What’s coming next for fusion research (2024)

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We’ve covered the dream of fusion before in this newsletter: the power source could provide consistent energy from widely available fuel without producing radioactive waste.

But making a fusion power plant a reality will require a huge amount of science and technology progress. Though some milestones have been reached, many are yet to come. At our EmTech MIT event this week, I sat down with Kimberly Budil, director of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL).

She was at the center of the science news world last year, when researchers from the national lab achieved what’s called net energy gain, finally demonstrating that fusion reactions can generate more energy than is used to start them up.

During our conversation on stage, I asked her about this moment for fusion research, where the national labs fit in, and where we go from here.

The moment

In December 2022, a group of scientists sat in a control room that looked like something out of a space mission. They focused 2 million joules of laser energy onto a target about the size of a pea. Hydrogen fuel inside that target began to compress, releasing energy as the atoms inside fused together.

And this time, more energy came out than what went in—something that had never happened before.

“This was really just a moment of great joy and vindication for all of the thousands of people who have poured their heart and soul into this pursuit over many decades,” Budil told me on stage at the event.

Many people thought it would never work, she explained—that the lab would never get to the level of precision needed with the lasers, or get the targets perfect enough to house the reaction. “The laser is a miracle, a modern engineering miracle,” she said during her talk. And “the targets are incredible, precision works of art.”

It’s “very, very hard to make fusion work,” Budil told me. And the moment researchers achieved net energy didn’t represent the finish line, but one milestone in a series of many still to come.

The aftermath

After the first successful demonstration of net energy gain, “the first priority was to repeat it,” Budil said. “But the next five shots were duds. They really did not work.”

It seemed to be mostly a problem with the targets, those tiny fuel pellets that the lasers shoot at. The targets need to be virtually perfect, with no defects. Making one takes around seven months from start to finish.

It wound up taking around six months to repeat the initial success, but over the summer, the lab achieved the highest energy gain to date. The team achieved net energy gain twice more in October.

There’s still a lot to learn about fusion, and researchers are trying to do just that with these repeated attempts. On stage, Budil ticked through some of the questions they still had: Could the scientists make changes to the targets? Alter the laser pulse shape? Turn the energy up?

There’s been steady progress on the science and engineering behind fusion energy for decades, Budil said, but new questions always come up as progress gets made.

I asked her when she thought this energy source might be ready for prime time. “My best guess is that you could have a demo power plant in 20 years,” she told me. Some startups are making bolder claims than that, predicting a decade or less, “but I think the challenges are much more significant than people realized at the beginning. Plasmas are really complicated,” she said.

Ultimately, researchers at the national lab won’t be the ones to build a power plant: that’s the role of the private sector, Budil says. But the researchers plan to keep working as part of the growing ecosystem of fusion.

Budil counsels a bit of patience as researchers around the world work to reach the next big fusion milestone: “The fusion community is definitely known for its irrational exuberance. My job for the last year has been half to get people excited about big science and public science, and the other half is to manage expectations for fusion energy, because it’s going to be very hard.”

Related reading

The road to this moment in fusion has been a long one. Check out some of our old magazine covers on the topic, from as early as 1972.

The dream of fusion power isn’t going away, as I wrote in a newsletter earlier this fall.

The first net energy gain in a fusion reactor was a huge moment, but the ultimate application for energy is still many breakthroughs away.

Helion says its first fusion plant will be online as soon as 2028. Experts are skeptical of this and other ambitious timeline announcements, as my colleague James Temple covered earlier this year.

Keeping up with climate

The US and China have agreed to work together to ramp up renewables and cut emissions. The agreement comes as President Biden and President Xi Jinping meet in person this week. (New York Times)

The first planned small-scale nuclear plant in the US is officially no more. Startup NuScale canceled plans for the project after it failed to line up enough customers willing to pay the rising cost of electricity. (Wired)

→ We were promised smaller nuclear reactors. Where are they? (MIT Technology Review)

A German flow-battery company, CMBlu, just pulled in $100 million in funding. The money is a big boon for a technology that has long struggled to bring the cost savings it’s promised. (Canary Media)

Car dealerships aren’t ready, or in some cases very willing, to sell electric vehicles. That could undermine progress on cleaning up transportation. (Washington Post)

Electrifying heating systems and other appliances in homes could be a major part of cleaning up emissions attributed to buildings. The problem is, renters might have trouble taking advantage of existing incentives for home electrification. (The Verge)

Exxon Mobil is setting up a facility to produce lithium, a key material for the batteries that power EVs. It’s a new foray for the fossil-fuel giant. (New York Times)

A new wave of startups is working to address the threat of wildfires. The field, increasingly termed “firetech,” can help prevent fires, or detect them once they start. (Canary Media)

Companies are racing to set up massive insect farms. The bugs can provide protein for animal feed, in a method that could help cut emissions from agriculture. (Washington Post)

Floods, heat waves, storms, and fires fueled by climate change are getting worse across the US. The hazards will increase unless greenhouse-gas emissions are cut quickly, according to a new report from the US government. (Bloomberg)

What’s coming next for fusion research (2024)

FAQs

How is fusion research going? ›

In August 2023, scientists at the US Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California repeated a breakthrough they first made in December 2022, achieving a "net energy gain" in fusion ignition. Using laser beams, the amount of energy from the fusion reaction surpassed that concentrated on the target for an instant.

What is the future of fusion? ›

Most experts agree that we're unlikely to be able to generate large-scale energy from nuclear fusion before around 2050 (the cautious might add on another decade).

How close are we to solving fusion? ›

I can't say for certain when, if ever, we'll achieve sustainable fusion power. But here are my odds, constructed entirely unscientifically: a 10% chance in the next 20 years, a 50% chance in the next century, a 30% chance within the next 100 years after that, and a 10% chance of it never happening.

What are the most advanced fusion projects? ›

the ITER Tokamak will be the largest and most powerful fusion device in the world. The primary objective of ITER is to experimentally attain a "burning" plasma, in which the self-heating of the plasma by nuclear fusion reactions dominates all other forms of heating.

Who is leading in fusion research? ›

U.S. climate envoy John Kerry said the U.S. is ready to work with other governments on research and development of nuclear fusion, as part of efforts to produce more carbon-free energy and combat climate change. Kerry made the announcement Dec.

Who funds fusion research? ›

In the 2024 Appropriations bill, signed into law March 7, the U.S. government would increase funding for fusion energy research to $790 million for the Department of Energy's Office of Fusion Energy Sciences.

Will fusion be a reality? ›

Safe, abundant, carbon-free energy—this is the promise of nuclear fusion technology. But fusion, the complex atomic process that powers the sun, is not yet feasible outside research settings here on earth.

How will fusion power change the world? ›

Climate and Nature. Fusion energy is the process that powers the sun and now it can be created here on Earth. Fusion energy could revolutionise the way we produce food and drinking water and heat our homes. Fusion energy could also increase carbon sequestration and reduce carbon emissions.

Is fusion possible on Earth? ›

In order to achieve fusion on Earth, gases need to be heated to extremely high temperatures of about 150 million degrees Celsius. That is 10 times more than the temperatures in the Sun's core.

How many years away are we from fusion? ›

ITER's published timeline for future development milestones is no faster. They say they will have a nuclear fusion demonstration project (called DEMO) in place by 2040 and a prototype facility (PROTO) by 2060 – which is, as the saying goes, about 30 years away.

Can fusion solve the climate crisis? ›

Nuclear fusion has for decades been hailed as a near-limitless source of clean energy, in what would be a game-changing solution to the climate crisis. But experts have only achieved and sustained fusion energy for a few seconds, and many obstacles remain, including instabilities in the highly complex process.

Can AI solve fusion? ›

By studying the AI controller's decisions as it attempts to contain the plasma, which can be radically different than what traditional approaches might prescribe, artificial intelligence may be not only a tool to control fusion reactions but also a teaching resource.

What is the latest breakthrough in nuclear fusion? ›

The stadium-sized laser facility, housed at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) in California, has unequivocally achieved its goal of ignition in four out of its last six attempts, creating a reaction that generates pressures and temperatures greater than those that occur inside the Sun.

What is the biggest fusion experiment in the world? ›

ITER (initially the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor, iter meaning "the way" or "the path" in Latin) is an international nuclear fusion research and engineering megaproject aimed at creating energy through a fusion process similar to that of the Sun.

What is the biggest problem with fusion reactors? ›

One of the most difficult challenges of the fusion reaction is dealing with neutron radiation. Neutrons produced during fusion can travel tens of centimeters out into the containment structure, causing damage to the constituent materials.

Is fusion really a breakthrough? ›

Four times now, researchers have produced a fleeting burst of fusion energy, an encouraging sign for making this zero-carbon energy source a reality.

Is fusion worth investing in? ›

You can expect an exit from a fusion investment in 10 years. Yes, really. Given that fusion is still a nascent technology, many have questioned whether a typical VC fund with a 10-year timeline would be able to get a return in time. But both Tosukhowong and Seibold have done the analysis and believe it can be done.

Has fusion ignition been achieved? ›

In December 2022, scientists at the National Ignition Facility (pictured) achieved nuclear fusion “ignition,” in which the energy produced by the fusing of atomic nuclei exceeds that needed to kick the fusion off.

What is the status of fusion energy? ›

A 2022 experiment achieved a key milestone on the path to viable fusion energy: it was the first experiment in which the fusion reaction produced more energy than the energy injected into it. However, this technology faces challenges before it can produce commercial electricity.

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