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University of Chicago scientist explains fusion ignition, what it means for future of clean energy

University of Chicago scientist on the future possbilities for fusion ignition
University of Chicago scientist on the future possbilities for fusion ignition 13:04

CHICAGO (CBS) -- It took 60 years, thousands of scientists, 192 lasers, and a target the size of a human hair – but a major scientific breakthrough for humankind was achieved in a trillionth of a second.

The National Ignition Facility (NIF) at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California was the first to successfully replicate the process of how the sun makes energy, on earth – nuclear fusion ignition.

Many other labs and researchers from around the world were involved – including some from the University of Chicago. UChicago Astronomy & Astrophysics professor Dr. Don Lamb helped develop a computer code to do experiments on the kind of lasers like the one used to achieve fusion ignition.

"This code has enabled us to do experiments at NIF and other laser facilities around the world that help us to understand the physical processes that nature has thrown in our way," Dr. Lamb said.

He tells CBS 2 that he believes an even greater contribution is that this code is free and available to the public.

"We've made it to be able to train generations of young people as undergraduate students, graduate students, and post-docs – not only at the University of Chicago, but universities around the world," said Dr. Lamb. "The code now has a group of users of over 6,000 around the world. Most use it for these types of laser experiments."

The nuclear fusion reactions are brought about by a process called inertial confinement fusion. The researchers succeeded in passing the breakeven point in inertial confinement fusion – in which the amount of energy released from the fusion reactions is greater than the energy put in for them.

"Now that we've actually been able to do this and achieve a breakeven in inertial confinement fusion, nature can't throw anymore tricks our way," Lamb said. "But how long will it be before inertial confinement fusion can produce clean energy without radioactive waste as happens with nuclear reactors or with carbon generation and so on. And this is hard to know the answer to. But we're in a different ballgame now."

Now that most of the science has been nailed down, the focus will be on improving the technology and engineering.

"It's not really fair to only talk about how much energy the lasers put into the target and how much came out, because it started out with firing up these banks of capacitors, and then there was some inefficiency," Dr. Lamb said. "So if you ask how much energy we actually use, the electrical energy we use compared to the energy coming out where it's still a fairly large factor away from breakeven."

Because of this, we cannot rely on this technology to stop climate change, Lamb tells CBS 2.

"We have to really focus on what we can do immediately," he said. "Eventually, this could create enormous amounts of energy with no pollution – and could transform the standard of living of everybody. In the long term, it will absolutely, profoundly alter our world and hopefully for the better."

In the meantime, Lamb said we can continue to celebrate this monumental moment. The U.S. Department of Energy calls it "one of the most impressive scientific feats of the 21st century."

"Working together, we can make amazing things happen. And I am so deeply grateful to all the people that came before me," Lamb said, "So I think it's a model that tells us we should be optimistic when we really decide to do something and work together to do it. Remarkable, truly remarkable things can happen."

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