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?

    • William_C1

      No because it is nuclear and nuclear = bad in their minds. Nevermind any of that irrelevant stuff like facts of details.

      • Vers

        Speak for yourself ignorant one.

        • Thomas L. Nielsen

          True though, to degree. Far too many people have a knee-jerk OMG/ONOZ reaction to anything with “nuclear” in it, irrespective of the fact that nuclear (fission) energy is clean and safe, certainly if modern reactor designs are used.

          Regards & all,

          Thomas L. Nielsen

          • jaf

            Nuclear(fission) energy is not clean and it is not safe. we do make it as safe as possible. With fission there are spent fuel rods, contaminated water and other parts that remain toxic for years and most of these toxic parts are stored on site at the plants. This is because no one wants the stuff.
            Nuclear(fission) is susceptible to meltdowns, one in Russia, a near miss in the US and one in Japan that was caused by a tsunami.
            Modern reactors are better but there is still waste issues and where to put that waste is problematic.
            I am sure Luxembourg would love to be the EU’s depository of that

          • Thomas L. Nielsen

            Modern and “in development” reactor designs, such as the Integral Fast Reactor and the Molten Salt Reactor have increased passive safety (especially the Molten Salt design) and produce less waste than the reactor designs used today.

            The Chernobyl disaster happened with a crappy old Soviet-era reactor, with a number of its safety features deliberately disconnected. So this is hardly a valid example.


          • taj

            Thorium Liquid Fluoride reactor technology (Molten Salt Reactor) is a great and safe source of Nuclear fission energy. By using Thorium as the fuel source you greatly reduce the amount of radioactivity in the waste uranium it produces, in comparison, U235 which is decayed from U233 which is what is currently used in nuclear reactors has a half life of 10,000 years where as a decay from Thorium 233 to Uranium 233 which ends up being the waste it only has a half life of 100 years.

          • Thomas L. Nielsen

            As for Fukushima, the Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission ( concluded that the reactor was not designed to withstand an earthquake or a tsunami which, by any reasonable standard of logic, it should have been.

            I would have no problem with nuclear waste storage in Luxembourg, provided that Luxembourg has the stable, geological layers required for long-term storage (I don’t know). And as I said above, with modern reactor designs, the waste problem is minimized.

            And maybe we should consider the “clean” and “safe” aspects in relation to fossil fuel powerplants that yearly pump pollution into the atmosphere. That is not exactly “safe” either, although the hazard is less apparent.

            Regards & all,

            Thomas L. Nielsen

          • tmb2

            50 years of nuclear reactors and you named two incidents (one by a society not known for industrial safety). Three Mile Island shut itself down like it was designed to do. Meanwhile, countless oil power plants around the world are blanketing the atmosphere with pollution around the clock.. Those spent nuclear rods are a concern, but its a future risk versus an already existing problem.

          • William_C1

            Thank you. How many people die per year from coal mine collapses vs nuclear radiation poisoning?

          • jaf

            yes, all the other forms of energy that we use causes lots of harm and have safety concerns but they don’t last for 10k years. well, maybe they will, but we won’t be here to hear about it.
            And to be clear I am not refuting the safety record of OPERATING fission reactors. I just don’t believe “clean and safe” describes something that produces waste that will last 125+ generations.
            This is from an article about the Yucca mountain repository “Bush’s Environmental Protection Agency concluded that the facility needs to prevent radiation leakage for up to 10,000 years. But a federal judge ruled that to be inadequate and ordered the administration to require protection for up to one million years. ”…

    • Raraavis

      Environmentalism just like any other industry produces money and power for those at the top. They will not quit willingly.

      • David

        Why don’t we just set the nuclear waste rods and water on a trajectory into the sun when they will never make it past the heat and be evaporated and atomized in already radioactive space.

        • Thomas L. Nielsen

          Considering the failure rate of modern launch vehicles, I’m curious how exactly you plan to do that?

          Regards & all,

          Thomas L. Nielsen

    • DHYF

      You’re pretty harsh Vers… There is clean energy in solar and wind, however there are issues with those. Everyone has an agenda .. Even the environmentaliss. Lets not forget the “scientists” in England who recently fudged their data to conveniently line up with global warming models

      • blight_

        Waiting for my scheme to put turbines in the Florida keys to be driven by the gulf stream to become commercially viable…

        Someone will complain about the stupid manatees

    • Gary Gudlunus

      You really don’t want the EPA to give it a rest…, not if U are serious about what U and your loved ones absorb into their bodies. Clean air, water, non-toxic food products(flesh & plants) are always threatened by greedy producers and transporters of energy related fuels, who find sneaky ways to shave more dollars from safe practices and hide their pollution, all to grab more money at the expense of the public”s health. You really don’ t want to ignore any one. What would U do if you observed your neighbors spilling used car oil onto your garden, or throwing shovels of dog and cat manure over the fence into your yard. What if someone’s sewage line ruptured under their house and they didn’t fix it, because they didn’t want to spend the money, because Xmas was around the corner…., and the smell and waste was flowing downhill upon your property and U had to dig an expensive ditch to divert it? U wouldn’t and couldn’t tolerate none of it. What if a law or regulation didn’t exist to protect U, because U and others like U voted against government interference and U desire smaller government? U can’t’ have it both ways! U don’t desire protection? Buy cheap land under highpower lines, downstream from a coal strip mine, upwind of a slaughter house or pork factory farms and the shit waste ponds, downwind from a coal fired power plant. Buy a farm in Pa. with several fracking wells and contaminated drinking wells. Buy a home in the Love canal neighborhood, in Niagara Falls, N.Y. U say NO! What a surprise! Don’t. Be afraid to investigate and swallow the truth…, you might remain ‘heathy’!

      • David

        Mass Production and Big Agra are the problem. The cities are too big to be self sufficient and are consumption based by design. Maybe we should task the EPA with disbanding these pollution magnets and force people to live sustainably like they were meant to. You know what goes into the food you produce and raise yourself and you don’t have to worry about big greed taking risks on your environment because there would be no market for them. We let them in, now we have to deal with them. It all started with chemical fertilizers and mass production. The Earth is overpopulated and when the system breaks down a lot of dependent people will die because they’ve got their heads so far up their asses they can’t see the impending crises coming.

    • lewis

      Of course we will, it’s exactly what we’re hoping for. Fusion is a techno-hippy’s wet dream.

  • 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?

      • Gregory Savage

        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.…

    • Thomas L. Nielsen

      “Reality” - you keep using that word; I do not think it means what you think it means” [/Inigo Montoya]

      Regards & all,

      Thomas L. Nielsen

      • Max

        Are you claiming is posting lies on its website?

        • blight_

          The Wikipedia link they cite is full of hypotheticals.

          • Max

            So the video on that link showing two black triangular craft rotating 360 degrees while sitting still in mid-air is not real, correct?

          • Max

            I just love how the deniers try to extricate themselves from an obvious dilemma. The evidence is right in front of their eyes, and is undeniable, yet they body-slam their brain into disbelief because “It can’t be true, because I don’t believe it! Oh wait, what did I just say?” lol

          • Thomas L. Nielsen

            “The evidence is right in front of their eyes, and is undeniable” - if you’re still referring to that amateur-night video, then obviously your definitions of “evidence” and “undeniable” differ considerably from mine.

            Regards & all,

            Thomas L. Nielsen

          • Max

            Like I said…lol

        • Thomas L. Nielsen

          The video on is about as convincing as coin marked “50 BC”: Blurry, no scale, no background, no way of telling if the objects are moving, hovering or just plain old CGI.

          And the linked Wiki article makes precisely zero mention of anti-gravity, and in fact it states that there is no evidence to support the existence of the TR-3.

          Regards & all,

          Thomas L. Nielsen

          • blight_

            “I saw this clip on youtube once…”

            Youtube, ergo, veritas.

  • 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,

      • Sev

        Well wait. Isn’t the energy from the lasers energy that we are putting INTO the reaction? This is hogwash. The reaction has to generate more energy than the ENTIRE system puts into creating it in the first place. There is no such thing as a free lunch and I think that’s a universal truth. Look at the Sun. It looks like it’s outputting more energy than what went into making it, but when you calculate the gravitational potential energy of the gas and the actual output from the Sun, you’ll see that there is still more energy being put into the reaction, though it is graviational.

        • ole perfesser

          You are entirely correct that there is no such thing as a “free lunch.” It all goes back to the First Law of Thermodynamics and even further back to the Law of Conservation of Matter, or Mass, and Energy (they are interchangeable according to E = MC^2). In any closed system matter and energy can neither be created nor destroyed. We always love the thought that we could create a system that would create free energy with no work, especially the thought of the perpetual motion “myth.” But unfortunately, the knowledge of basic college physics that truly educated people study (not the folks who stick to the humanities alone because they are “soft” and “easy”) as part of their education, reveals the reality that brings us “back to earth.” The amount of output energy produced in a system equals the input energy minus the work done.

          • Dfens

            You seriously can look at a formula with energy on one side of the equation and matter on the other and make a statement like, “In any closed system matter and energy can neither be created nor destroyed.” Holy f, where do you keep your brain?

    • 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

    • Diqhead Original

      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 first part of your statement is very true. The second part is way the hell wrong.

  • 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

    • Hialpha

      The Sun, yeessssss… THAT SHALL BE THE NEXT TARGET OF COBRA!!

      Anyways, I agree with you in theory, but the Manhattan Project resulted directly from the war effort, and while not under that sort of stress our Congress pat’s itself for keeping the lights on for the next six months.

    • Nadnerbus

      I don’t think the problem is a matter of funding, so much as physics. My physics GED from Wikipedia is pretty limited, but I think creating and sustaining the insane temperature and pressures required for a useful fusion reaction down here on plain old Earth is a ridiculously difficult thing to do. With fission, it was “just” a matter of bringing the right materials together in the right configuration and timing. Fusion requires an environment that is almost impossible to recreate outside of a star.

      I still hope they find a way someday though. A world with plentiful, clean, and cheap energy opens so many doors, for all of humanity.

      • Dfens

        It is neither clean nor cheap, nor is there any reason to believe it ever will be either of those.

      • blight_

        Too much star trek.

        A world with plentiful energy will look just like this one.

    • OldGuy

      If you remember, President Carter killed the federal funding for fusion research back in the day. For some reason, it hasn’t been politically expedient to restart it. If it would have continued, there would have undoubtedly been some kind of breakthrough before now.

      • Dfens

        Yeah right, because this research was funded by Hostess cup cakes.

  • 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.

    • Dfens

      No, not 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…

      • Dfens

        Well, fuel cells aren’t exactly power sources themselves. They are more like the best batteries ever. They would certainly make electric cars far superior to anything we have now. The biggest problem with fuel cells is the platinum required to catalyze the half cell reaction between the oxygen and hydrogen. We chose to ignore the best source of platinum available to us when we let Rockwell design the space shuttle, causing our lunar exploration program to grind to a halt. I’m sure China won’t be as stupid that way.

      • man without a name

        [Atomic energy] > [chemical energy]

        There is no comparison really.

        • Dfens


  • 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.

  • Charles James Haas

    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.

    • blight_

      They could just buy out the Chinese solar panel producers…

      “You want it from the sun? Here, take these PV panels, and have a mandatory support contract”

      • WarPony

        And, fusion would be further along, and solar panels would be more efficient if not for the vested interests of Big Oil. These gains in efficiency will not happen until Big Oil makes its bucks off of fossil fuels.

        • blight_

          Big Oil is probably out to sabotage the agenda and direction of basic research in the DOE; but I’m not sure if they could actually defeat fusion research any more than the actual technical difficulty of getting it off the ground.

          That said, if the PRC and the Middle East go solar (the PRC for energy independence, the Middle East because they are only crude suppliers, and not “big oil” players) they will balance the balance of power.

          I would be amused to see OPEC change from a petroleum cartel to an energy production cartel, but that might be too long-term thinking in a corporate culture where the next quarterly earning is the only important thing.

  • 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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