Federal Nuclear Weapons Facility Teases Game-Changing Fusion Breakthrough

ignition graphic doe
A team from the Department of Energy's Livermore Lab made history by achieving fusion ignition. The enormous breakthrough promises to change the future of clean power and the United State's national defense.

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) announced today that it had made a breakthrough decades in the making. On December 5, 2022, a team from the DOE achieved fusion ignition, also known as scientific breakeven, where it produced more energy from fusion than the laser energy used to drive it. The press release from the DOE stated that this first-of-its-kind achievement "will provide unprecedented capability to support NNSA's Stockpile Stewardship Program and will provide invaluable insights into the prospects of clean fusion energy."

"This is a landmark achievement for the researchers and staff at the National Ignition Facility who have dedicated their careers to seeing fusion become a reality, and this milestone will undoubtedly spark even more discovery," exclaimed U.S. Secretary of Energy Jennifer M. Granholm. "The Biden-Harris Administration is committed to supporting our world-class scientists—like the team at NIF—whose work will help us solve humanity's most complex and pressing problems, like providing clean power to combat climate change and maintaining a nuclear deterrent without nuclear testing."

target chamber fusion
The target chamber of LLNL’s National Ignition Facility

"Fusion is the process by which two light nuclei combine to form a single heavier nucleus, releasing a large amount of energy," according to the DOE's press release. A group of scientists in the 1960's hypothesized that lasers could be utilized to induce fusion in a laboratory setting. During the years between 1988 and 1994, this idea became inertial confinement fusion, which led to more than 60 years of research and development in lasers, optics, diagnostics, target fabrication, computer modeling and simulation, and experimental design.

Dr. Arati Prabhakar, the President's chief advisor for Science and Technology and director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, indicated that we have had a theoretical understanding of fusion for over 100 years. However, the journey from "knowing to doing" has been a long and exhausting one. Prabhakar stated that today's announcement shows what can be achieved with perseverance.

hohlraum fusion
The hohlraum that houses the type of cryogenic target used to achieve ignition on Dec. 5, 2022, at LLNL’s National Ignition Facility.

"The pursuit of fusion ignition in the laboratory is one of the most significant scientific challenges ever tackled by humanity, and achieving it is a triumph of science, engineering, and most of all, people," remarked LLNL Director Dr. Kim Budil. "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. These are the problems that U.S. national laboratories were created to solve."

The experiment eclipsed the fusion threshold by delivering 2.05 megajoules (MJ) of energy to the target, resulting in 3.15 MJ of fusion energy output. This demonstrated for the very first time a fundamental science basis for inertial fusion energy (IFE), according to the press release. More developments are still needed to acquire "simple, affordable IFE to power homes and businesses," and the DOE is currently restarting a broad-based, coordinated IFE program in the United States.