The US Department of Energy is set to announce that scientists have achieved a net energy gain from a fusion reaction. This is a major milestone in the decades-long quest to develop a technology that provides unlimited, cheap, clean power. The aim of fusion research is to replicate the nuclear reaction through which energy is created on the sun. It is still at least a decade away from commercial use, but the latest development is likely to be touted by the Biden administration as an affirmation of a massive investment by the government over the years.
Huge amounts of public and private funds have been invested into the fusion race worldwide, with the aim of ultimately manufacturing fusion machinery that could bring electricity to the grid with no carbon footprint, no radioactive waste and far fewer resources than it takes to harness solar and wind power. Beyond the climate benefits, promoters say it could help bring cheap electricity to impoverished parts of the world.
However, the achievement of a net energy gain required engagement of one of the largest lasers in the world, and the resources needed to recreate the reaction on the scale required to make fusion practical for energy production are immense. More importantly, engineers have yet to develop machinery capable of affordably turning that reaction into electricity that can be practically deployed to the power grid. Building devices that are large enough to create fusion power at scale would require materials that are extremely difficult to produce, while the reaction creates neutrons that put a great amount of stress on the equipment creating it, such that it can get destroyed in the process.
Even so, researchers and investors in fusion technology have hailed the breakthrough as an important advancement. It comes as the Biden administration is prioritizing fusion energy research in its climate and energy agenda, with projects among the first to receive subsidies and grants authorized through the major climate package Biden signed over the summer.