Climate

World-record fusion experiment produced even more energy than expected

Comment

Dr. Kim Budil announces fusion breakthrough
Image Credits: Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

It’s official: A U.S. Department of Energy lab produced a controlled nuclear fusion reaction that released more energy than it consumed.

On December 5, just after 1:03 a.m. PT, 192 lasers at the National Ignition Facility converged on a small gold cylinder that contained a tiny bead of fuel composed of two isotopes of hydrogen, deuterium and tritium. In a flash, the cylinder vaporized, emitting X-rays that bombarded the fuel pellet, turning its outer diamond layer into an expanding plasma that compressed the fuel inside to the point where its nuclei fused and released a tremendous amount of energy.

How much energy?

When the BB-sized fuel pellet ignited and produced a sustained fusion reaction, it released about 50% more energy than was imparted by the experiment’s lasers — the world’s largest and most energetic laser system. The lasers’ energy heated the fuel pellet to 150 million degrees Celsius and compressed it with a pressure over twice that found at the sun’s center.

In specific terms, the lasers put in 2.05 megajoules of energy and the fusion reaction released 3.15 megajoules. That’s even better than leaked reports suggested. The team at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory spent the last week deciphering the data to determine the exact results.

Only 4% of the deuterium-tritium fuel burned in the fusion reaction, suggesting plenty of room for improvement. The gold cylinder took about two weeks to manufacture, and the diamond-coated fuel pellet took about seven months to produce.

In scientific and technical terms, the reaction is considered net positive. In real-world terms, it produced far less power than what would be expected of a commercial power plant. To produce the 2.05-megajoule shot, the laser system required 300 megajoules of power, Kim Budil, director of LLNL, said in a press conference today.

Still, Budil said that the team sees a way to get to “hundreds of megajoules of output” per shot, an amount that would be required for a commercial-scale power plant using the technique, known as inertial confinement.

“We need the private sector to get into the game,” Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm said.

While a few fusion startups are focused on inertial confinement, the majority are pursuing magnetic confinement, which uses powerful superconducting magnets to corral burning plasma to the temperatures and pressures required for fusion.

The fundamental underlying physics are the same for the two approaches, but the rest of the science and engineering challenges are quite different. In the fusion research world, magnetic confinement is considered low temperature and low pressure, whereas inertial confinement is high temperature and high pressure. Still, there are many places where work on one side benefits the other and vice versa, Carolyn Kuranz, an experimental plasma physicist at the University of Michigan, told TechCrunch yesterday.

The opportunities for shared knowledge have investors heartened, too. “Fusion science has been making steady progress toward energy breakeven on a number of fronts for decades,” said Phil Larochelle, a partner at Breakthrough Energy Ventures. “We expect other approaches to make similar breakthroughs this decade, paving the way for commercial plants in the near future.”

The team had a hunch that last week’s shot would be a good one, though they had no idea just how good until the diagnostic data started rolling in. The first thing that principal experimentalist Alex Zylstra did when he saw the initial data was to call a diagnostic expert to double-check whether it was really as good as he thought.

By the morning, the rest of the team woke up to the promising news, and by the next week, they knew they had achieved a world first.

The shot was the result of refinements put in place after successful experiments in August 2021 and earlier this year. The string of successes was enabled not only by data from previous experiments, but also machine learning trained on that data, Budil said.

When it comes to a timeline for commercializing inertial confinement, Budil remains a realist but is growing increasingly optimistic. Now that the theory has been proven, she sees where specific advancements, from targeting improvements to laser efficiencies, could help bring it to market.

Commercial fusion remains “probably decades away,” she said. “Not six or five as we used to say, but moving into the foreground. A few decades of research into the underlying technologies could put us in the realm of a commercial power plant.”

More TechCrunch

Stack AI’s co-founders, Antoni Rosinol and Bernardo Aceituno, were PhD students at MIT wrapping up their degrees in 2022 just as large language models were becoming more mainstream. ChatGPT would…

Stack AI wants to make it easier to build AI-fueled workflows

Pinecone, the vector database startup founded by Edo Liberty, the former head of Amazon’s AI Labs, has long been at the forefront of helping businesses augment large language models (LLMs)…

Pinecone launches its serverless vector database out of preview

Young geothermal energy wells can be like budding prodigies, each brimming with potential to outshine their peers. But like people, most decline with age. In California, for example, the amount…

Special mud helps XGS Energy get more power out of geothermal wells

The market play is clear from the outset: The $449 headphones are firmly targeted at an audience that would otherwise be purchasing the Bose QC Ultra or Apple AirPods Max.

Sonos finally made some headphones

Adobe says the feature is up to the task, regardless of how complex of a background the object is set against.

Adobe brings Firefly AI-powered Generative Remove to Lightroom

All cars suffer when the mercury drops, but electric vehicles suffer more than most as heaters draw more power and batteries charge more slowly as the liquid electrolyte inside thickens.…

Porsche invests in battery startup South 8 to boost cold-weather EV performance

Scale AI has raised a $1 billion Series F round from a slew of big-name institutional and corporate investors including Amazon and Meta.

Data-labeling startup Scale AI raises $1B as valuation doubles to $13.8B

The new coalition, Tech Against Scams, will work together to find ways to fight back against the tools used by scammers and to better educate the public against financial scams.

Meta, Match, Coinbase and others team up to fight online fraud and crypto scams

It’s a wrap: European Union lawmakers have given the final approval to set up the bloc’s flagship, risk-based regulations for artificial intelligence.

EU Council gives final nod to set up risk-based regulations for AI

London-based fintech Vitesse has closed a $93 million Series C round of funding led by investment giant KKR.

Vitesse, a payments and treasury management platform for insurers, raises $93M to fuel US expansion

Zen Educate, an online marketplace that connects schools with teachers, has raised $37 million in a Series B round of funding. The raise comes amid a growing teacher shortage crisis…

Zen Educate raises $37M and acquires Aquinas Education as it tries to address the teacher shortage

“When I heard the released demo, I was shocked, angered and in disbelief that Mr. Altman would pursue a voice that sounded so eerily similar to mine.”

Scarlett Johansson says that OpenAI approached her to use her voice

A new self-driving truck — manufactured by Volvo and loaded with autonomous vehicle tech developed by Aurora Innovation — could be on public highways as early as this summer.  The…

Aurora and Volvo unveil self-driving truck designed for a driverless future

The European venture capital firm raised its fourth fund as fund as climate tech “comes of age.”

ETF Partners raises €285M for climate startups that will be effective quickly — not 20 years down the road

Copilot, Microsoft’s brand of generative AI, will soon be far more deeply integrated into the Windows 11 experience.

Microsoft wants to make Windows an AI operating system, launches Copilot+ PCs

Hello and welcome back to TechCrunch Space. For those who haven’t heard, the first crewed launch of Boeing’s Starliner capsule has been pushed back yet again to no earlier than…

TechCrunch Space: Star(side)liner

When I attended Automate in Chicago a few weeks back, multiple people thanked me for TechCrunch’s semi-regular robotics job report. It’s always edifying to get that feedback in person. While…

These 81 robotics companies are hiring

The top vehicle safety regulator in the U.S. has launched a formal probe into an April crash involving the all-electric VinFast VF8 SUV that claimed the lives of a family…

VinFast crash that killed family of four now under federal investigation

When putting a video portal in a public park in the middle of New York City, some inappropriate behavior will likely occur. The Portal, the vision of Lithuanian artist and…

NYC-Dublin real-time video portal reopens with some fixes to prevent inappropriate behavior

Longtime New York-based seed investor, Contour Venture Partners, is making progress on its latest flagship fund after lowering its target. The firm closed on $42 million, raised from 64 backers,…

Contour Venture Partners, an early investor in Datadog and Movable Ink, lowers the target for its fifth fund

Meta’s Oversight Board has now extended its scope to include the company’s newest platform, Instagram Threads, and has begun hearing cases from Threads.

Meta’s Oversight Board takes its first Threads case

The company says it’s refocusing and prioritizing fewer initiatives that will have the biggest impact on customers and add value to the business.

SeekOut, a recruiting startup last valued at $1.2 billion, lays off 30% of its workforce

The U.K.’s self-proclaimed “world-leading” regulations for self-driving cars are now official, after the Automated Vehicles (AV) Act received royal assent — the final rubber stamp any legislation must go through…

UK’s autonomous vehicle legislation becomes law, paving the way for first driverless cars by 2026

ChatGPT, OpenAI’s text-generating AI chatbot, has taken the world by storm. What started as a tool to hyper-charge productivity through writing essays and code with short text prompts has evolved…

ChatGPT: Everything you need to know about the AI-powered chatbot

SoLo Funds CEO Travis Holoway: “Regulators seem driven by press releases when they should be motivated by true consumer protection and empowering equitable solutions.”

Fintech lender SoLo Funds is being sued again by the government over its lending practices

Hard tech startups generate a lot of buzz, but there’s a growing cohort of companies building digital tools squarely focused on making hard tech development faster, more efficient and —…

Rollup wants to be the hardware engineer’s workhorse

TechCrunch Disrupt 2024 is not just about groundbreaking innovations, insightful panels, and visionary speakers — it’s also about listening to YOU, the audience, and what you feel is top of…

Disrupt Audience Choice vote closes Friday

Google says the new SDK would help Google expand on its core mission of connecting the right audience to the right content at the right time.

Google is launching a new Android feature to drive users back into their installed apps

Jolla has taken the official wraps off the first version of its personal server-based AI assistant in the making. The reborn startup is building a privacy-focused AI device — aka…

Jolla debuts privacy-focused AI hardware

The ChatGPT mobile app’s net revenue first jumped 22% on the day of the GPT-4o launch and continued to grow in the following days.

ChatGPT’s mobile app revenue saw its biggest spike yet following GPT-4o launch