At 8.30 pm on December 13, US Department of Energy officials announced that the federally funded National Ignition Facility (NIF) at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) in California had conducted a fusion test in which the energy yield was greater than that supplied to start it.
All of them seemed eager to say that this is what US leadership looks like, that this is proof of the US gunning for what was once thought impossible, that the US is where the world’s most brilliant minds work, that according to Joe Biden the US is the land of possibility – and it was hilarious.
The announcement pertains to a scientific demonstration that the NIF’s mode of achieving controlled fusion, called inertial confinement, works. After this come more tests and modelling, manufacturing to key components to very high quality standards, scaling up from the bare essentials to bigger tests, leading up to designing a commercial facility, then building and finally operating it – assuming success at every step. LLNL director Kim Budil said at the presser that commercial inertial confinement could be three or four decades away.
All this said, the test is actually far removed from “zero-carbon abundant fusion energy powering our society”, in the words of energy secretary Jennifer Granholm. My forthcoming article for The Hindu (Thursday) explains why. One important requirement is the energy gain: the ratio of the output energy to the input. The new test achieved a gain of around 1.5 – but only relative to the energy that started the fusion reactions, not the energy that the lasers consumed to produce and deliver it.
More importantly, for inertial confinement fusion to be practicable, it needs to achieve a gain in excess of at least 100. If scientists at NIF find that they’re unable to go past, say, a gain of 50, that will be the end of the road for commercial ICF using the NIF’s setup. So there’s a long, long way to go even before researchers conduct a test that’s a faithful proof of concept for practical nuclear fusion power.
But even more importantly, it’s spellbinding how the US government will stake its claims to being the country that achieves the impossible, etc. but will make all sorts of excuses to disguise its failure of leadership to mobilise $100 billion a year from economically developed countries for poorer countries to use to weather the climate crisis; to disguise its attempts to undermine, modify or defy commitments made under the Paris Agreement; and to evade, stall and deny efforts to set up a ‘loss and damage’ fund at COP27.
It’s a shame that the Conferences of the Parties to the UN FCCC have been spending bigger chunks of their agenda of late just to push back on the recalcitrance of the US et al. Yet here we are, with government officials blaring their trumpets for a proof of a proof of concept with several caveats (as I spell out in The Hindu). Granholm even called the result “one of the most impressive scientific feats of the 21st century”, to applause from the audience, and said Joe Biden called it a BFD.
Of course it is. It’s an unexpectedly big umbrella that the US has got to unfurl over its climate action obligations.