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Feds confirm historic fusion ignition at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory

Feds confirm historic fusion ignition at Lawrence Livermore National Lab
Feds confirm historic fusion ignition at Lawrence Livermore National Lab 02:35

LIVERMORE -- Federal energy officials confirmed Tuesday what had been rumored -- researchers at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory have achieved the first controlled fusion experiment in history.

The historic event -- duplicating the process that powers the sun -- took place on Dec. 5 at  National Ignition Facility located at the lab's Livermore facility.

Researchers said the process used 200 laser beams, some of the most powerful on earth, and converged that energy down to a pellet "creating temperatures not seen until you go to the surface of a star."

Energy Fusion Milestone Experiment
The NIF Target Bay at the National Ignition Facility at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.  Damien Jemison / AP

The experiment marked a major scientific breakthrough decades in the making that will pave the way for advancements in national defense and the future of clean power.  

"This is a landmark achievement for the researchers and staff at the National Ignition Facility who have dedicated their careers to seeing fusion ignition become a reality, and this milestone will undoubtedly spark even more discovery," said U.S. Secretary of Energy Jennifer M. Granholm. 

Dr. Arati Prabhakar, the president's Chief Advisor for Science and Technology, said the experiment advanced theory into reality.

"We have had a theoretical understanding of fusion for over a century, but the journey from knowing to doing can be long and arduous,"  Prabhakar said in a news release. "Today's milestone shows what we can do with perseverance."

LLNL Director Dr. Kim Budil called the Dec. 5 experiment the crossing of a scientific threshold. 

"Crossing this threshold is the vision that has driven 60 years of dedicated pursuit—a continual process of learning, building, expanding knowledge and capability, and then finding ways to overcome the new challenges that emerged," Budil said. "These are the problems that the U.S. national laboratories were created to solve."

Proponents of fusion hope that it could one day produce nearly limitless, carbon-free energy, displacing fossil fuels and other traditional energy sources. Producing energy that powers homes and businesses from fusion is still decades away. But researchers said it was a significant step nonetheless.

"It's almost like it's a starting gun going off," said Professor Dennis Whyte, director of the Plasma Science and Fusion Center at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a leader in fusion research. "We should be pushing towards making fusion energy systems available to tackle climate change and energy security."  

Fusion works by pressing hydrogen atoms into each other with such force that they combine into helium, releasing enormous amounts of energy and heat. Unlike other nuclear reactions, it doesn't create radioactive waste. pioneering scientists at LLNL hypothesized that lasers could be used to induce fusion in a laboratory setting.

Led by physicist John Nuckolls, who later served as LLNL director from 1988 to 1994, this revolutionary idea became inertial confinement fusion, kicking off more than 60 years of research and development in lasers, optics, diagnostics, target fabrication, computer modeling and simulation, and experimental design.

To pursue this concept, LLNL built a series of increasingly powerful laser systems, leading to the creation of NIF, the world's largest and most energetic laser system. 

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