The world has long looked to nuclear fusion, or the fusing of two atoms, as a potential solution to our future energy needs. It is considered a source of energy that has all the benefits of nuclear fission, the splitting of the atom, but without the negative dangers of radioactive waste, greenhouse gas emissions, and the potential for disasters like Chernobyl. An experiment completed by the National Ignition Facility at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California provided evidence that this future may be closer than we think.
Simplified, fusion energy is produced when two atoms are thrown together in a super-hot gas known as plasma. When they fuse, they produce energy. It is the same process by which the sun creates energy. Bringing this process mainstream has overcome many difficulties over time, but is still years from creating fusion reactors.
The most recent of these difficulties is creating a successful fusion process that is net positive: It creates more energy than the energy that was put into it. The scientists at the NIF accomplished this late last year by shooting 192 lasers into a tiny cylinder simultaneously. This caused the hydrogen fuel within to give off roughly 1.7 times the energy put into it (as well as 2.6 times in more recent experiments), according to the published report in the journal Nature.
This is great news, of course. The drawback is that the energy created by the hydrogen fusion was roughly 1% of the energy provided to the cylinder by the 192 lasers. The biggest issue with fusion reactions is that the high-temperature hydrogen fuel must be kept under a ridiculous amount of pressure to allow for the reaction to take place. Contemporary scientists do this via either magnets (since the 1940s) or laser use (which began in the 1970s). They are capable of using both of these methods to create the reaction, but only for a short period of time and at a very expensive price.
Who benefits and who should be worried?
This breakthrough is fantastic news for several groups that are at the forefront of research in this area such as General Fusion, a Vancouver-based fusion company that has received investment from Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon and the Canadian government, or the International Thermalnuclear Experimental Reactor that is being built in France. This $20 billion, 34-nation project plans to be operational by 2020 and produce commercial energy within the decade after. Both of these companies use a different method to attempt fusion, but the outpouring of enthusiasm and interest generated by this successful experiment in California will raise all boats.
Our current energy behemoths, such as ExxonMobil (NYSE:XOM) and BP (NYSE:BP) have reason to worry as another alternate energy source takes another step toward gaining traction in the market. While these large energy companies are still increasing profits and surely aren't going down the drain anytime soon, these recent developments in fusion are a reminder to stay nimble.
Businesses that grow so large are always in danger of ignoring changes to their industry and not investing in the game changers. There are plenty of examples of companies that followed this stubborn path and paid the price. Now may be the time for these leaders in the energy industry to invest in up and coming technologies before it's too late.
This experiment is an amazing breakthrough toward controlled nuclear fusion and is considered by some to be the single most meaningful step toward fusion in the past decade. Optimism toward producing a workable process within our lifetimes is high among the scientific community as related by a recent quote in the Washington Post from Stewart Prager, director of the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory, which studies fusion using magnets:
"In 30 years, we'll have electricity on the grid produced by fusion energy – absolutely," Prager said. "I think the open questions now are how complicated a system will it be, how expensive it will be, how economically attractive it will be."
While the technology is not all there yet to make this controlled process financially viable for companies to invest in, this successful experiment is another step in proving that this technology is very real and no longer limited to the realms of science fiction. As of now, the research is almost completely limited to labs and university campuses. This does not produce any real front-runner companies to invest in as the eventual solution is still too far off.
However, investors would be wise to keep an eye on the industry, as it is sure to be a winner once the necessary technology is nearing completion. A process that produces all the energy that we could possibly need with essentially no danger or waste products is a dream come true for the industry and for humankind as a whole.