US set to accelerate fusion energy despite slow progress

(Bloomberg) — The Biden administration is stepping up efforts to support fusion energy research, saying more funding is needed to realize its bold vision of harnessing energy from stars.

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The U.S. Department of Energy announced $180 million to support fusion research Thursday at an event in Washington. This comes alongside plans to develop a public-private consortium framework that would boost federal efforts by leveraging funding from state and local governments, philanthropists and the private sector, according to a release.

President Joe Biden aims to develop commercial fusion systems within a decade. But recreating the process that powers stars poses a huge challenge, and progress has been slow. These new efforts come as the Department of Energy recognizes that the current pace of progress is unable to meet the timeline set by Biden.

Commercial nuclear power plants are based on fission, that is, large atoms are split in a process that generates energy. Fusion is the opposite: fusing small atoms together to release energy. In 2022, scientists at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory successfully triggered a fusion reaction that produced more energy than was needed to complete it, a long-sought breakthrough.

“The vision is very simple,” Mickey Wade, associate laboratory director for fusion and fission energy at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, said at Thursday’s event. “We need to move an idea towards deployment. Until now, it has simply been a program of ideas.

Since the 2022 breakthrough, Lawrence Livermore has successfully repeated the process four times, Tammy Ma, a plasma physicist at the lab, said at the event. This progress, she said, validates efforts to develop a commercial fusion industry.

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