California Physicists Report Fusion Breakthrough


The days of fusion-powered helicopters, tanks and trucks that can operate for months on end without refueling — like today’s nuclear-powered submarines and aircraft carriers — may still be a long way off.

But scientists at California’s Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, which houses the National Ignition Facility, say they recently made a breakthrough by generating a fusion reaction that created more energy than it took in.

Fusion, which occurs naturally on the sun and makes energy by fusing atoms, is basically the opposite of fission, which creates energy by splitting them. The latter is the foundation for modern nuclear technology and, for decades, has been used on everything from military weapons and ships to commercial power plants.

Fusion has long been an attractive energy source to physicists because such a reactor could theoretically run on the same kind of hydrogen found in ocean water, produce little waste and avoid a catastrophic meltdown because the process doesn’t lend itself to out-of-control chain reactions.

The California team, whose results were published online this week in the journal Nature, didn’t produce a true fusion “ignition,” according to an article by Joel Achenbach of The Washington Post. Overall, the experiment still required far more energy than it produced.

Scientists concentrated 192 lasers on a pellet of hydrogen fuel to compress it and trigger a fusion of the isotopes deuterium and tritium, according to the report. Only about 1 percent of the energy from the lasers entered the pellet, but the technique, known as “alpha heating,” created a series of nuclear reactions that generated a higher level of particles and heat, it stated.

To have practical implications, the scientists would have to produce 100 times more fusion reactions, Mark Herrmann, director of the Pulse Power Sciences Center at the Sandia National Laboratories, a sister institution, told the newspaper.

Even so, the experiment is likely to excite military technologists, who have long dreamed of fusion-powered equipment that could roam a battlefield almost indefinitely and require minimal logistics networks.

The Marine Corps, for instance, has experimented in recent years with using solar panels rather than generators to charge radios and computers in Afghanistan, in part to limit the number of fuel convoys vulnerable to attack by insurgents.

About the Author

Brendan McGarry
Brendan McGarry is the managing editor of He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter at @Brendan_McGarry.
  • Uncle Bill

    When energy is clean and free and plentiful will the environmentalists give it a rest?

  • Lance

    Only downside if your fusion powered tank, truck or plane is hit you have a radioactive meltdown 10 feet in front of you. Unless cold fusion comes, the results of being hit in combat may come from just damaged to radio active waste land in seconds. The idea of Nuclear powered planes came far back as the 1950s and a B-36 was built to test a reactor in a plane BUT reality of war and accident proved this not to be feasible so it was dropped.

    • dr. agreeable

      Two questions:
      1. Do you know the difference between fusion & fission?
      2. Do you know what a meltdown really means?

      • Obviously not.

      • PittEngr

        Lance must have read the title and started commenting:
        “Fusion has long been an attractive energy source to physicists because such a reactor could theoretically run on the same kind of hydrogen found in ocean water, produce little waste and avoid a catastrophic meltdown because the process doesn’t lend itself to out-of-control chain reactions.”

    • Ken Esq

      I guess the reality of war didn’t apply to submarines…

      • Beltway Bandit

        No shit.

  • Max

    Evidently the idea of nuclear-powered aircraft has made a comeback with the TR-3B, because it is a reality.

  • tomatojuice

    Wait a minute, im kind of confused. The article reads:

    “National Ignition Facility, say they recently made a breakthrough by generating a fusion reaction that created more energy than it took in.”

    on the other hand, Joel Achenbach of The Washington Post said “Overall, the experiment still required far more energy than it produced”

    which is it?

    • Durandal

      Well, both sort of… It means we were very inefficient in starting the reaction, but the reaction itself made more energy than we put it. IE we spent 100 dollars to make a 1 dollar investment that resulted in 2 dollars,

    • Dave

      The fusion event produced more energy than what the lasers released into the hydrogen pellet. The total energy put into the system is a lot more than what the lasers shot into the hydrogen. In fact the article states only 1% of the laser energy went into the hydrogen. The rest went into the surrounding. In other words they have to make 100x more energy per fusion event to reach breakeven for the entire contraption.

      • Musson

        It was more like 1/1000th of the energy that went into the fusion.

    • blight_

      Activation energy required to start getting your energy was high. Sounds about right.

      • Musson

        Breakeven is a slippery concept. The fusion plasma gave off about the same amount of energy as it absorbed. BUT – the experiment required 1000 X more energy to start.

        So did they breakeven if the experiment only generated 1/1000th as much energy as it required? Seems like at least 3 orders of magnitude energy loss to me.

        • Musson

          Also, please note that the energy came off as heat. So, it would have to run steam through a generator to get electricity.

          Aneutronic fusion, on the other hand, would directly generate electrons – ie. electricity.

  • Paul

    Finding the key to making fusion work in real world applications is like finding a cure for baldness. When you ask doctors how long till a cure is discovered they always say it’s 5-10 years off. They have been telling people that for the past 40 years. Don’t hold your breath people. This is just another money pit.

    • JohnB

      Good analogy bald Paul.

    • Nadnerbus

      Wouldn’t that be awesome if the secret to nuclear fusion was Rogain fuel pellets?

    • Wolf

      I thought they already did find something for baldness Paul there’s a bunch of ads for it already

    • Just another way to fund black ops.

  • Wing

    The real reason for this kind of facility is to similate nuclear waepons as we cannot test it by real detonation any more. As for fusion energy, it is jsut a pipe dream.

  • hibeam

    The sun is fusion powered. I blame the sun for global warming. We need to shut that damn thing down. Enough is enough. All kidding aside I don’t know why we can’t have a Manhattan style project to move this along with all due hast and bring it online ASAP. Modern day lasers are a million times better than the old glass dinosaur’s they are currently using at the NIF

  • GM1

    It’s to much money in OIL, there isn’t any reason to really get us the American people off the nipple. How many businesses will be out of Business…. Oil is King

  • Auyong Ah Meng

    With Fusion power…

    Means man-kind finally have the means to go to space…

    With that power….and if man-kind is able to secure the required exotic material and quantity …warp travel is more than a possibility by many magnitudes less…within our life-times….

    Man kind…those in the know has always known there is a hostile universe out there that is imicable to all intelligent life…we after all live on one planet…anything goes wrong…that’s the end of man-kind and the children too.

  • oli

    I basically think we have already achieved fusion power. My conscious tells me there are civilian programs and patents and there are top secret ones. The civilian programs haven’t caught up to the military ones. In due time the top secret ones slowly migrate to the civilian. This is my thinking because if the civilian sector achieved this it would be counterproductive in many and serious way. So when I hear something like this its old very old news because we’ve already achieved fusion.

    • Hunter76

      You’re delusional.

  • Tinto

    Bottom line, Fusion Power, will not replace OIL unless, unless there is no more oil, or BIG Oil has a gun to their head, or BIG OIL controls the fusion.

  • Dfens

    Only 60 more years of “research” before it can be used to power anything useful!!! Wow, what a break through. Funny how they don’t mention that fusion is a huge neutron generator that makes all the materials around the reaction radioactive. What a convenient lie. The helium by product isn’t radioactive, but they don’t mention the fact that everything around the reaction is. We already have the cleanest form of sustainable power generation available to us, fission. And what do we do with it? F it away like everything else.

    • blight_

      Fission, followed by fuel cells. The latter shares with fusion the question of where your hydrogen comes from…

  • Hunter76

    DoD has zero business working on a fusion reactor. After civil businesses and non-military agencies develop the basic operating methods, DoD can start looking into the matter.

    Those who compare this to the Manhattan Project should try to remember that was a direct development toward a weapon. A power reactor is not per se a weapon.

    People worked for centuries on cars, planes, space travel, etc before successes were achieved.

    • Taylor

      The fusion lab is under the DOE not the DOD.

    • respawnd

      High Energy Weapons require, well, energy. Free energy gives you an infinitely deep cartridge.

      • Dfens

        “Free energy”? This clearly is the best thing since Obama was elected.

  • Tribulationtime

    In short….Research continues

    • Dfens

      You say that like it is a bad thing. Think of all those DOE contractors that would have to find some other part of the government to suck on if fusion were possible.

  • Lyton

    from the article: “the experiment is likely to excite military technologists, who have long dreamed of fusion-powered equipment that could roam a battlefield almost indefinitely and require minimal logistics networks.”

    Any advance in U.S. military technology is a good thing. That being said, if fusion could be made to practically work (producing energy), it would be utterly world-changing and military applications would be the least of it.

  • Muttling

    I think fusion is the next big leap in energy production and this is a nice step in the right direction, but it isn’t the LEAP that will be required to make it happen. Keep working on it LLNL, it will happen at some point but you’re not there yet.

  • The problem really is feeding the reaction to keep the energy levels up so we can gain from the process over a long period of time. In doing so, we also need to contain and control the process in a complex electromagnetic field because of the excessive temperatures involved so the entire thing doesn’t melt down (last time I checked, things as hot as the sun don’t leave regular objects intact very long). Finally, we need to figure out how to harness the energy from inside the electromagnetic field so we can use it to generate electricity. None of these are even part of the process, as we are still trying to figure out how to light the thing off.

  • WarPony

    Big Oil says: You want coal or uranium, sure, we own the mines; you want gas or oil sure, we own the wells; you want solar or fusion, uh, er, those things are not feasible.

  • Chris

    Next stop, “Photon Torpedoes.” OK Scotty, WARP SPEED.

    • Phono

      The concept itself could be a spaceship drive. It is allready thought in Project Daedalus.

  • Rob C.

    Fusion is a good way to go, hopeflly scentists will be able make more progress. Less worry of meltdown and more about longivity of the device your using from a vehicle to a ship, is a positive thing.

  • wtpworrier

    Make way for flying cars and floating bars.

  • Jim

    Stories like this ought to be a breakthrough for California walnut growers. Judging by the comments posted above, news about fusion reactions seems to shake the nuts right out of the trees.

  • Phono

    great achievement, furthermore the concept is greatly adaptable to an engine.

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