US: Nuclear fusion breakthrough “will go down in history”

The U.S. Department of Energy announced a monumental milestone in nuclear fusion research on Tuesday: For the first time in history, a “net energy gain” was achieved by scientists at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California.

“Simply put, this is one of the most impressive scientific achievements of the 21st century,” Jennifer Granholm, the US Secretary of Energy, said at a news conference, adding that researchers have been working on this for decades.

“It strengthens our national security, and ignition allows us to replicate certain conditions that only exist in the stars and in the sun,” she said. “This milestone brings us an important step closer to the possibility of carbon-abundant fusion power powering our society.”

The impact of the scientists’ work will help U.S. industry across the country, Granholm said.

“Today we are telling the world that America has made a major scientific breakthrough,” Granholm said.

The hope is that it could be used to develop a clean source of energy that would end dependence on fossil fuels.

“The day you take out more energy than you put in, the sky’s the limit,” American astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson told CBS News.

Nuclear fusion is considered the holy grail of energy creation that some say could save humans from extinction. It combines two hydrogen atoms, which then make helium and a lot of energy.

It’s how stars, like our sun, generate energy.

“We know how to fuse atoms and generate energy. We just haven’t been able to master it,” says deGrasse Tyson, author of “Starry Messenger: Cosmic Perspectives on Civilization.”

Nuclear fusion technology has been around since the creation of the hydrogen bomb, but using that technology to harness energy has taken decades of research.

“They took 200 laser beams, some of the most powerful on Earth, converged that energy into a pellet, a pellet the size of a BB,” said Dr. Michio Kaku, a professor of theoretical physics at City College of New York. “And remember, fusion power has no significant nuclear waste, no meltdowns to worry about.”

Scientists believe that fusion power plants would be much safer than current fission power plants – if the process can be mastered.

That’s the purpose of a multi-billion dollar project called the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor, or ITER, which is under build in Southern France.

U.S. Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm (C) is joined by (L-R) Lawrence Livermore National Laboratories Director Dr.  Kim Budil, National Nuclear Security Administration Chief Jill Hruby, White House Office of Science and Technology Policy Director Dr.  Arati Prabhakar and NNSA Deputy Administrator for Defense Programs Dr.  Marvin Adams for a press conference at Department of Energy headquarters to announce a breakthrough in fusion research on December 13, 2022 in Washington, DC.  / Credit: Getty Images

U.S. Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm (C) is joined by (L-R) Lawrence Livermore National Laboratories Director Dr. Kim Budil, National Nuclear Security Administration Chief Jill Hruby, White House Office of Science and Technology Policy Director Dr. Arati Prabhakar and NNSA Deputy Administrator for Defense Programs Dr. Marvin Adams for a press conference at Department of Energy headquarters to announce a breakthrough in fusion research on December 13, 2022 in Washington, DC. / Credit: Getty Images

Currently, nuclear power plants use nuclear fission, where atoms are broken apart to make energy. Even though fossil fuels aren’t being burned, meltdowns like Chernobyl and Fukushima are proof that our nuclear fission can still harm people – and our environment.

But now the moment of fusion finally seems to have arrived.

“It’s been a long time since we converted something so destructive that it could finally be used for a peaceful purpose in the service of civilization,” deGrasse Tyson said.

Granholm said scientists have reached a milestone that will extend far beyond Tuesday’s announcement.

“This is a milestone for the researchers and staff at the National Ignition Facility who have dedicated their careers to making fusion ignition a reality, and this milestone will undoubtedly lead to even more discoveries,” said Granholm, adding that the breakthrough “will go down in the history books.”

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