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Livermore Lab ceremony celebrates fusion breakthrough

U.S. government officials share remarks commemorating scientific milestone

"Fusion offers the promise of affordable, abundant, reliable, clean energy -- it is the holy grail," said U.S. Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm during a special ceremony Monday at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) recognizing the accomplishment of the first successful controlled fusion experiment. 

The National Ignition Facility (NIF) at LLNL -- the world’s largest and most energetic laser system -- first achieved scientific energy breakeven on Dec. 5, 2022, meaning it produced more energy from fusion than the laser energy used to drive it.

Fusion ignition, as it's called, was accomplished by 192 laser beams delivering more than 2 million joules of ultraviolet energy to a tiny fuel pellet. The experiment harnessed "the power of the sun and the stars right here on Earth," according to Granholm. 

The target chamber of LLNL’s National Ignition Facility, where 192 laser beams delivered more than 2 million joules of ultraviolet energy to a tiny fuel pellet to create fusion ignition on Dec. 5, 2022. Photo courtesy LLNL

The LLNL campus was buzzing with excitement during the celebration event which, in addition to Granholm, featured remarks from LLNL Director Kimberly Budil and other officials from the Department of Energy (DOE) and the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA). 

During her comments, Granholm announced a total of $45 million in federal funding to support fusion to be made available over the next four years -- with up to $9 million of it available this year. "This funding opportunity is going to support the creation of inertial fusion innovation hubs, which will draw on the expertise and the abilities obviously from our national labs and academia and industry to advance inertial fusion research," she said. 

Granholm and Budil were joined on stage by Jill Hruby, Under Secretary for Nuclear Security of the DOE and Administrator of the NNSA; Marvin L. Adams, NNSA Deputy Administrator for Defense Programs; and Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren (D-San Jose). 

"It really is important to pause and celebrate an achievement like this, to reflect on all the struggles and successes and to recognize the many people who contributed in ways large and small. I'm continually awed by the accomplishments of this community," Budil said. 

With hundreds in the crowd -- many of them sporting LLNL-branded sun visors -- each speaker highlighted various aspects of the six decades of dedication and commitment that led to the breakthrough and how it could impact the futures of national defense and clean energy.

The experiment, which briefly simulated the conditions inside of a star, has the potential to help scientists "safely study nuclear explosions and simultaneously pave the way for a clean energy future," Hruby said. 

In addition to its national security and environmental implications, Budil acknowledged another factor the milestone represents. 

"The pursuit of ignition is also a testament to the importance of long-term, public investment in science. Without that patient and consistent support over these decades, we wouldn't be here today," she said. 

Lofgren noted in her comments that support for pursuing ignition is "deep in the Congress and it's bipartisan," adding that because of this, she has "high hopes" for the future of the program. 

Congressman Eric Swalwell (D-Livermore) was also scheduled to share remarks at the ceremony but was stalled due to a delayed flight. He arrived shortly after the ceremony to participate in the remaining festivities. 

The hohlraum that houses the type of cryogenic target used to achieve ignition on Dec. 5, 2022, at LLNL’s National Ignition Facility. Image courtesy LLNL

Although NIF has not reproduced fusion ignition in the months since the initial achievement, LLNL officials said they are working on refurbishing lasers and other maintenance, so they can continue their work to recreate and eventually get more energy from fusion ignition.

"Today's not the end of the ignition journey. It marks the beginning of what will be an incredible era of discovery and innovation," Budil said.

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