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A fusion expert at Sandia National Laboratories compared a fusion reaction achievement by a sister lab in California to the moon landing and said it will have an effect on similar work done at the labs in Albuquerque.
Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California created the world’s first “fusion ignition,” meaning a fusion reaction created more energy than it used produce it, scientists announced Tuesday. Greg Rochau, the program manager for inertial confinement fusion at Sandia, said the ignition validates decades of research at Sandia, and it will make it more likely for the government and private industry to invest more money in the research.
“In my opinion, the demonstration of fusion ignition in the laboratory is a scientific milestone that stands on a foundation of careful science and precision engineering that is every bit as hard, or maybe even harder, than landing on the moon,” Rochau said in an interview. “So it’s a big deal.”
Researchers at the National Ignition Facility at Lawrence Livermore made the breakthrough last week. The team used about two megajoules of energy to fuse two atoms together and create three megajoules, Rochau said.
The team relied on a machine that uses high-powered lasers shot at a small spherical target, which created the extreme pressures and densities needed to fuse two atoms together. A fusion reaction essentially creates energy the same way stars do, Rochau said.
At Sandia, researchers for more than 25 years have used a similar machine, called the Z machine, to create the reactions. The Sandia machine relies on intense pulses of electricity, as opposed to lasers.
“We would like to describe it as they are complementary approaches. As opposed to competitive approaches,” Rochau said. “We work together, nationally, to accomplish this goal.”
Improving the country’s understanding of fusion reactions will help create a better understanding of nuclear weapons and one day, decades from now, perhaps make it possible to use the reactions as a clean form of energy, Rochau said.
The National Nuclear Security Administration, which is within the Department of Energy, funds both Sandia and Lawrence Livermore fusion energy research.
“This result demonstrates that it is possible to get net energy gain from a fusion target in a laboratory setting. That’s a milestone which the national program has been trying to achieve for decades,” Rochau said. “This result gives us confidence that the scientific approach that we’re taking has merit, and that there’s a reason to continue and really invest in this to achieve higher efficiencies for the future.”
Editor’s note: This article has been corrected to reflect the accurate amount of power that the fusion reaction created.