Why the nuclear fusion breakthrough matters

For the first time, scientists were able to cause a fusion reaction with a net energy gain.

Scientists at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) in California made a pretty cool breakthrough in nuclear fusion this month.

Fusion is when atoms fuse together to form larger atoms, producing energy. If we could harness it, it’d be a clean energy source that doesn’t produce greenhouse gases or radioactive waste.

Fusion is what powers the sun…

… but in a man-made setting, causing that reaction takes more energy than it produces…

Until Dec. 5, at 1:03am, when LLNL scientists conducted a fusion experiment with a net energy gain, per The New York Times.

How? It’s a complicated process (which you can read about here), but essentially, they fired 192 lasers at a peppercorn-sized target filled with hydrogen atoms, replicating the heat and pressure of a star’s core.

What’s next?

The breakthrough is key in proving that it can be done, but scaling from a lab experiment to powering the nation’s toasters won’t happen overnight.

So far, private fusion companies have pulled together ~$5B, and the Department of Energy has called for a pilot plant and $50m in research grants, per Politico.

LLNL director Kimberly S. Budil said that, with “concerted effort and investment,” a power plant could be built after “a few decades of research.”

Fun fact: Bill Nye pointed out that nearly 80 years ago, on Dec. 2, 1942, Enrico Fermi and his University of Chicago colleagues created the first self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction, leading to today’s power plants.

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