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The United States will announce a “breakthrough” in fusion energy

The Department of Energy plans to announce on Tuesday that scientists have been able for the first time to produce a fusion reaction that creates a net energy gain – a major step in the multi-billion dollar quest that lasts for decades to develop technology that provides unlimited amounts of clean, cheap energy.

The goal of fusion research is to replicate the nuclear reaction by which energy is created on the sun. It’s a “holy grail” of carbon-free energy that scientists have been searching for since the 1950s. There’s still at least a decade – possibly decades – left in commercial use, but the latest development is likely to to be presented by the Biden administration as an affirmation of massive government investment over the years.

Huge amounts of public and private funds have been funneled into the fusion race around the world, with the goal of eventually building fusion machines that could bring electricity to the grid with no carbon footprint, no radioactive waste. and with far fewer resources than it takes to harness solar and solar power. wind power. Beyond the climate benefits, proponents say it could help bring cheap electricity to poorer parts of the world.

“For most of us, it was just a matter of time,” said a fusion specialist familiar with the work of the National Ignition Facility at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, where the discovery was made. .

The development was first reported by the Financial Times on Sunday. This was confirmed by two people familiar with the research, who spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid getting ahead of the official announcement. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm was expected to make the announcement Tuesday at a media event billed as the unveiling of “a major scientific breakthrough.”

The department and lab declined to comment. A lab official said the researchers are still finalizing their analysis and won’t release any official findings until Tuesday.

The science of nuclear fusion relies on smashing two atoms together at incredibly high speeds and transforming the energy of that reaction into electricity that can power homes and offices without emitting carbon into the air or spilling radioactive waste in the environment.

In the decades that scientists have been experimenting with fusion reactions, they have so far been unable to create one that produces more energy than it consumes. While the achievement is significant, there are still monumental engineering and scientific challenges ahead.

Creating the net energy gain required the engagement of one of the largest lasers in the world, and the resources needed to recreate the reaction on the scale required to make fusion practical for energy production are immense. . More importantly, engineers have yet to develop machines that can cheaply turn this reaction into electricity that can be practically deployed on the power grid.

Building devices large enough to create large-scale fusion energy would require materials that are extremely difficult to produce, say the scientists. At the same time, the reaction creates neutrons which put enormous pressure on the equipment that creates it, so that it can be destroyed in the process.

And then there’s the question of whether the technology could be perfected in time to make a dent in climate change.

Even so, fusion technology researchers and investors hailed the breakthrough as a significant step forward.

“There will be great pride that this is something that happened in the United States,” said David Edelman, who leads global policy and affairs at TAE, a large private fusion energy company. “This is a very important step on the way to fusion energy.”

It comes as the Biden administration prioritizes fusion energy research in its climate and energy agenda. The projects top the list for the tens of billions of dollars in grants and subsidies authorized by the big climate package President Joe Biden signed into law this summer, called the Inflation Reduction Act.

Over the past few decades, the United States, Russia, and various European countries have allocated billions of government dollars to try to master science, believing that if they could, it would be a boon to the world.

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