In December 2022, the National Ignition Facility, which is experimenting with laser-driven fusion, announced that they had finally achieved “ignition” and that it was a major breakthrough on the way to mastering thermonuclear fusion. Does this success mean that all obstacles have been overcome and we can finally start building a functional fusion power plant?
The success of the National Ignition Facility in an experiment on December 5, 2022, which released 3.15 MJ of energy in a fusion reaction using only 2.05 MJ of energy for the lasers required to ignite this reaction, is undoubtedly huge and a significant milestone in thermonuclear fusion research. But from the point of view of the overall path to a functional fusion power plant, it seems like we’ve been striking a match and now, after nearly a hundred years of frantic effort, that match has finally caught fire. There is still a long way to go before we can sit by a hot fireplace. The first reason why we will not have a fusion power plant tomorrow is that the ignition occurred on a device that has not yet resolved the issues of how to achieve continuous operation. Laser-driven inertial fusion will usually do one experiment per day, while a power plant would need it to happen several times per second. But even if the fusion ignition announced a tokamak-type device, which is significantly further along in preparation for the power plant, it would not represent a significant leap on the way to the power plant. It would be an important confirmation that we are on the right track. The design of all the necessary components and the construction of a fusion reactor is a complicated matter that cannot be fundamentally accelerated. However, every such successful experiment brings new data and new insights that bring us closer to the time when the first fusion power plant will finally supply us with electricity.
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