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Today, we break down a huge breakthrough for nuclear fusion — and why we can’t count on it for unlimited clean energy just yet.
Scientists at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California made a huge announcement Tuesday: For the first time, they achieved a net energy gain from nuclear fusion.
Today’s nuclear plants operate through fission, a process that breaks atoms apart to create a lot of energy. Controlled fusion — sticking hydrogen atoms together and creating a massive amount of harnessable energy — has meanwhile been elusive for decades, but has long been seen as a potential source of zero-emission energy.
But this time around, the fusion process created a bit more energy than it took in. “It’s like the Kitty Hawk moment for the Wright brothers,” Melanie Windridge, a plasma physicist and the CEO of Fusion Energy Insights, told the Washington Post.
So … next stop: unlimited clean energy? Well, not quite.
For starters, the lasers scientists used to fuse the hydrogen atoms took a ton of energy to power, though they only directed a smaller amount of that energy at the atoms. The reaction also only produced a tiny bit more energy than it used, and could only be replicated about once a day.
So as Kimberly S. Budil, the director of Lawrence Livermore lab, said Tuesday, it’ll be “probably decades” before fusion energy can be widely adopted — if it sees widespread success at all.
More clean energy news
📝 Permitting reform saga continues: After Democratic leaders leave out Sen. Joe Manchin’s energy permitting reforms from a must-pass defense spending bill, Manchin looks to add them back in as an amendment. (E&E News, Utility Dive)
🔍 Hidden space for solar: A mapping company develops a free tool to help transportation departments find pieces of land where they could build solar arrays, even letting them create virtual mockups alongside highways and roads. (Grist)
⚡ Federal buildings go electric: The Biden administration proposes a requirement that new or renovated federal buildings be fully carbon-neutral by 2030, achieved by implementing American-made heat pumps, electric water heaters and other efficient appliances. (The Hill, E&E News)
💰 Can billionaires solve climate change? As global governments fail to quickly reduce emissions, billionaires step in to fund clean energy technologies and climate strategies — with questionable consequences. (Washington Post)
👀 Fossil fuel climate hypocrisy continues: As the industry publicly claims it supports the clean energy transition, a House committee investigation finds oil and gas leaders are privately skeptical of renewables’ potential and seek carbon capture funding to avoid changing their business models. (Washington Post)
🤝 Solar workers unionize: Labor advocates see success in their efforts to organize unions in the growing solar industry, even in right-to-work states like Texas. (American Prospect)
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