We live in stranger times, when the day there is good news is now a red letter day. Today happens to be one of those days. I woke up to the news that a very close friend had a healthy baby boy. What a delight it is to be an uncle again. A few minutes later, I learned about the pending arrest and extradition of a con man and sociopath, Sam Bankman-Fried. And to cap it all, the Laurence Livermore Laboratory announced that it had achieved a breakthrough that makes fusion energy a reality. 

On Dec. 5, a team at LLNL’s National Ignition Facility (NIF) conducted the first controlled fusion experiment in history to reach this milestone, also known as scientific energy breakeven, meaning it produced more energy from fusion than the laser energy used to drive it. 

LLNL’s experiment surpassed the fusion threshold by delivering 2.05 megajoules (MJ) of energy to the target, resulting in 3.15 MJ of fusion energy output, demonstrating for the first time a most fundamental science basis for inertial fusion energy (IFE).

Fusion is the process by which two light nuclei combine to form a single heavier nucleus, releasing a large amount of energy. In the 1960s, a group of pioneering scientists at LLNL hypothesized that lasers could be used to induce fusion in a laboratory setting. Led by physicist John Nuckolls, who later served as LLNL director from 1988 to 1994, this revolutionary idea became inertial confinement fusion, kicking off more than 60 years of research and development in lasers, optics, diagnostics, target fabrication, computer modeling and simulation and experimental design.

From LLNL Press Release

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

So how should you view today’s announcement? I don’t think it is anything more than a significant step forward. My dear friend Steve Crandall, a scientist, interprets today’s news more intelligently on his blog. Here is a tiny bit that gives the proper context to today’s news. 

This facility has been running for about a dozen years.  It has been solving enormous engineering and applied science problems along the way as well as contributing to the pure science of understanding plasmas at this scale and temperature. In my mind it’s a triumph of instrumentation technology along with the control of some difficult to manage parameters. Even the fuel pellets are very difficult to make and test. Moving this line of fusion forward seems like a long shot. A factor of five improvement may be possible with a redesign, but they need more than a thousand.   Not impossible, but there’s a long path ahead.

In other words, it is unclear when or if this will become a commercial reality. And even if that does, like all such technologies, the early use case for the breakthrough might be in some military applications. This is not a silver bullet; we must find ways to move forward with other technologies that help address the harsh realities of climate change and the human race’s energy needs. 

What has been achieved underscores the importance of a national lab and monumental, painstaking work that takes a lot longer than whiz-bang time cycles of venture-based innovation. I am sure we will soon hear a lot of startups and pitches around fusion energy, but we have to remind ourselves of the pandemic of overpromises and the reality of time. 

Over the past few weeks, billionaires behaving badly has been the thrust of the news that has sucked up our attention. It has been grating to see modern-day Barnum’s undermine the work of scientists. The “fusion energy” breakthrough, while unlikely to have any commercial impact, at least in my lifetime, is a good reminder that fundamental science and scientists who pursue it matter. 

And to close out the day, I received one more bit of good news: my dear friend Bijan Sabet, a successful investor in companies such as Twitter & co-founder of Spark Capital, has been named US ambassador to the Czech Republic. There isn’t a better person to represent American values than Bijan. While I will miss going on photo walks with him, I will look forward to seeing what he captures with his lens in his new home. 

December 13, 2022. San Francisco