The U.S. National Ignition Facility recently reported that researchers achieved nuclear fusion ignition — a nuclear reaction that produces more energy than it consumes. The promise of nuclear fusion — the same phenomenon that powers our sun — has long been dreamed of as a potential clean energy solution.
Darden Professor Mike Lenox, co-author of “The Decarbonization Imperative: Transforming the Global Economy by 2050,” says that the breakthrough is hopeful news for mid-to-far future society, but it doesn’t solve for efforts to decarbonize by 2050.
“It’s always exciting to see an announcement like we saw this week. With that said, I have observed in my lifetime that there are occasionally these types of breakthroughs that promise a future of fusion, and we haven’t seen it enter the market yet. We’re still a long way away from this becoming commercially viable and producing electricity at scale,” Lenox said.
While nuclear power plants have been in operation since the 1950s, they are powered by nuclear fission, in which the nucleus of an atom is split into multiple nuclei. The process releases a massive amount of energy, but it also produces dangerous nuclear waste, which can remain radioactive for millions of years. Although rare, frightening accidents like those that took place in Chernobyl and Fukushima have cooled enthusiasm for traditional nuclear power as an energy source.
In contrast to nuclear fission, nuclear fusion occurs when two nuclei join to form one. While the process also releases energy — more of it than fission — it doesn’t produce long-term radioactive waste or greenhouse gases, it’s much safer, and the sources of fuel are relatively abundant on Earth. The only obstacle between us and this potential clean energy holy grail has been that it takes more energy to induce a fusion reaction than the reaction produces. Until now.
Lenox notes that an S-curve framework can provide a helpful perspective on emerging technology: An innovation may evolve slowly and gradually before a stage of rapid growth as it scales. “The idea is the technology might persist for years, if not decades, with little advancement made,” he said. “If it is going to become a disruptive technology, eventually you get to the sweet spot of the S-curve at which things improve dramatically. And then you typically have another S-curve, which is an adoption S-curve that follows in its wake.”
Electric vehicles and solar electricity are good examples of the S-curve in action. Solar panel technology has existed since the 1960s, but it only hit the rapid advancement part of its S-curve in the past decade or so, becoming competitive with traditional energy technologies like fossil fuels.
Lenox says that fusion ignition is still on the first part of the S-curve, and it’s difficult to predict how long it will stay there. “I have no idea how long we’ll be on that first part of the S-curve with fusion, and some technologies never reach that sweet spot,” he said. “But if we could get there, obviously it would be transformational to our decarbonization challenge.”