Israel to establish nuclear fusion research institute after US success

Fusion energy promises to supply the world with clean, carbon-free energy - a development that can dismantle the fossil fuel industry.

 Will clean fusion energy change the world forever? (Illustrative) (photo credit: PIXABAY)
Will clean fusion energy change the world forever? (Illustrative)
(photo credit: PIXABAY)

A major breakthrough that promises to eventually supply the world with clean, carbon-free energy in the same way that the sun creates energy with fusion was announced on Tuesday by researchers working with lasers at California’s Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. It will someday dismantle the fossil fuel industry controlled by Arab countries and others that produce and sell oil.

The lab is a federal facility with a huge budget that has been working for many years towards this aim, which scientists have pursued since the 1950s. So far, they have produced only 20% or 30% more energy than the amount utilized for fusion. Only if the reaction produces 100 times that amount will it be practical, effective and able to be applied in the years ahead, Dr. Naama Charit-Yaari, a nuclear physicist at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot told The Jerusalem Post in an interview. A total of 192 laser beams delivered more than two million joules of ultraviolet energy to a tiny fuel pellet to create fusion ignition.

“This is a landmark achievement for the researchers and staff at the National Ignition Facility (NIF) who have dedicated their careers to seeing fusion ignition become a reality, and this milestone will undoubtedly spark even more discovery.”

Jennifer Granholm

“This is a landmark achievement for the researchers and staff at the National Ignition Facility (NIF), who have dedicated their careers to seeing fusion ignition become a reality, and this milestone will undoubtedly spark even more discovery,” said US Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm.

“The Biden-Harris administration is committed to supporting our world-class scientists – like the team at NIF – whose work will help us solve humanity’s most complex and pressing problems, like providing clean power to combat climate change and maintaining a nuclear deterrent without nuclear testing.”

 Technicians use a service system lift to access the target chamber interior for inspection and maintenance at the National Ignition Facility (NIF), a laser-based inertial confinement fusion research device, at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory federal research facility in Livermore, California (credit: Philip Saltonstall/Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory/Handout via REUTERS) Technicians use a service system lift to access the target chamber interior for inspection and maintenance at the National Ignition Facility (NIF), a laser-based inertial confinement fusion research device, at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory federal research facility in Livermore, California (credit: Philip Saltonstall/Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory/Handout via REUTERS)

A historic day in science

“Monday, December 5, 2022, was a historic day in science thanks to the incredible people at Livermore Lab and the National Ignition Facility. In making this breakthrough, they have opened a new chapter in NNSA’s Stockpile Stewardship Program,” National Nuclear Security Administration administrator Jill Hruby said.

“I would like to thank the members of Congress who have supported the National Ignition Facility, because their belief in the promise of visionary science has been critical for our mission. Our team from around the DOE [US Department of Energy] national laboratories and our international partners have shown us the power of collaboration.”

Dr. Arati Prabhakar, the president’s chief adviser for Science and Technology and director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, said that “We have had a theoretical understanding of fusion for over a century, but the journey from knowing to doing can be long and arduous. Today’s milestone shows what we can do with perseverance.”

Charit-Yaari, who is also head of innovation initiatives in science education at the Davidson Institute of Science Education at Weizmann, said that “We on earth haven’t been able so far to copy what happens in the sun. CERN – the European Organization for Nuclear Research in Switzerland – is one of the world’s largest and most respected centers for scientific research, but it is doing other things, looking at particles from the sun, but focusing on the origin of the universe.”

She explained that “there are two techniques for achieving fusion: one called NIF using lasers at Livermore and the other, called ITER [the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor] in southern France, where four billion euros has been invested in a facility that was supposed to open in 2025 but will probably take longer and will use magnetic fields.

“ITER will be the world’s largest magnetic confinement plasma physics experiment and the largest experimental tokamak (a device using a powerful magnetic field to confine plasma to produce controlled thermonuclear fusion power),” the nuclear physicist said. “There is international cooperation between the US and Europe on nuclear fusion, but Livermore is the only place using lasers under heavy security. They won’t be able to hide it for long; they will have to share it with the rest of the world to solve the global energy problem.”

Charit-Yaari is also the only Israeli nuclear inspector working at the UN’s Preparatory Commission for the Comprehensive Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO), an international body established by the countries that signed the treaty on November 19, 1996, that has its headquarters in Vienna, Austria.

She travels the world as a UN inspector to uncover any violations of the treaty. The CTBTO’s inspectors verify the ban on nuclear tests and operate a worldwide monitoring system as well as conduct on-site inspections. All 186 signatory nations, including China, then stopped experimentation on nuclear weapons.

Since the disclosure in 2002 of its clandestine nuclear program, Iran has been repeatedly found in breach of the Non-Proliferation Treaty Safeguards Agreement by conducting nuclear activities and by failing to declare the construction of nuclear facilities, Charit-Yaari said.

Israel’s Energy Ministry “is working to establish a research institute in the field of nuclear fusion, so that Israel can contribute to the advancement of fusion technologies in the world,” commented the ministry’s chief scientist, Dr. Gideon Friedman, following the results of the nuclear fusion experiment in the US.

“Following the announcement by the United States Energy Department regarding the impressive achievement of scientists at the Livermore National Laboratory, we regard this as an important landmark in which, for the first time, more energy was produced as a result of nuclear fusion than the amount of energy invested in its creation,” Friedman said.

“In particular, it is worth noting the rapid progress in recent years, which has multiplied in the last five years approximately 50 times the energy produced from fusion. However, it is important to understand that commercial use of this technology is still far away, and it is not possible to know based on these results whether the technology will mature into commercial use in the foreseeable future.”

For example, continued Friedman, “even though more energy was produced than the lasers put in, the energy invested in the experiment is greater than what was produced, because the light produced by the lasers contains only a small part of the energy required to operate the lasers. In the overall calculation, the total energy produced in the experiment is less than the energy invested in it. In addition, the total energy produced in the experiment is small – equivalent to operating an electric kettle for 20 minutes – and the energy cannot be produced continuously.”

Friedman’s Chief Scientist Unit already “initiated the establishment of a research consortium in the field about two years ago, with an investment of more than NIS 2 million – and this year, we set up a new, virtual research institute here. It will work with a budget of about NIS 40 million, NIS 30 million from our ministry, for five years. The institute will strengthen scientific research, so that Israel can contribute to the advancement of fusion technology in the world. The intention is to focus on fusion that does not require investments and equipment as is the case in NIF or ITER.”

“This work is expensive,” added Charit-Yaari, “but we are smart enough to accomplish something.” She said that she was very excited by the Livermore announcement. “I know people there who work on other things, and I have been in some high-security labs, but I don’t know if they will let me enter the part that has accomplished the fusion.”

Though it could be many years before fusion can be used commercially, the Biden administration will probably boast that the US government has invested huge sums in the project, which aims ultimately to manufacture fusion machinery that could bring electricity to the grid with no carbon footprint, no radioactive waste and far fewer resources than it takes to harness solar and wind power. This will greatly reduce global warming and also help produce cheap electricity in the Third World.

“This astonishing scientific advance puts us on the precipice of a future no longer reliant on fossil fuels but instead powered by new clean fusion energy,” US Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer of New York said.