Fusion energy breakthrough is huge, but other uses will come first

The running joke among scientists and others engaged in nuclear fusion research is that genuine progress toward producing energy is 20 years away … and has been stuck 20 years out for decades.

The breakthrough announced Dec. 13 by scientists at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California may mean fusion has reached a point where commercial energy production is closer to a “hard” 20 years away versus a perpetually moving target.

In the meantime, expect other uses of fusion in industrial and medical science to produce results much sooner – and in places as close to home as Rock County, Wisconsin.

Greg Piefer, founder and chief executive officer of SHINE Technologies in Janesville, heads a company that recently recorded its first profitable quarter in industrial imaging products and may be within a year of producing essential medical isotopes on a massive scale. He thinks the Livermore “milestone” is a step toward clean energy that could power mankind for eons … but not next week, year, or decade.

“What happened at Livermore’s National Ignition Facility is a big deal. (Fusion energy) is likely going to happen this generation,” Piefer said. “It just won’t be overnight.”

Fusion is a reaction where two atoms of hydrogen combine, or fuse, thus releasing energy, freeing neutrons and the harmless by-product of helium. It’s what takes place with the sun and the stars. The Livermore experiment was microcosm of those interstellar furnaces: A laboratory experiment that produced more energy than it took to start the reaction.

In a process that lasted about 100 trillionths of a second, a frozen hydrogen pellet encased in diamond was hit by 2.05 megajoules of laser-produced energy. The resulting reaction produced neutron particles that carried about 3 megajoules of energy. It was a factor of 1.5 in energy “gain,” enough to encourage scientists to keep trying.

Piefer, who was a speaker at a March White House conference on commercial fusion, likened this brief example of fusion “ignition” to holding a match against a cold log. Once that match is taken away, any progress toward starting a lasting fire will end.

Much closer to reality is industrial imaging testing with neutrons, which SHINE conducts, as well as production of medical isotopes using small-scale fusion reactions. Isotopes such as Molybdeum-99, Iodine-131, and Xenon-133 are used widely today, respectively, for heart disease and cancer diagnosis; as a treatment for hyperthyroidism and thyroid cancer; and to help diagnose lung problems. They are produced through nuclear fission, however, which comes with safety and proliferation issues while making for a fragile supply chain.

Once SHINE’s Chrysalis facility in Janesville is complete, it will have a capacity of 20 million doses of Molybdenum-99 per year — or roughly half the North American need. It will also be able to produce millions of doses of Iodine-131 and Xenon-133. If all goes as planned, a second plant will open in the Netherlands in 2026 to meet European demand and to shorten the half-life shipping hurdles of radioactive isotopes.

A second Rock County company, NorthStar Medical Radioisotopes, is already producing Molybdeum-99 through a different process, so the possibility exists that Wisconsin could become the medical isotope capital of the country.

Also in Wisconsin, Realta Fusion is in the development phases of trying to produce fusion energy, and the UW–Madison is working with a German lab affiliated with the Max Planck Institute to advance fusion research.

For Piefer, it’s all adding to the momentum of fusion and stirring the imagination of people who worry about energy shortages in an era of climate-change anxiety.

“It’s still a nascent program in terms of energy, but it’s a big story and it’s generating lots of attention,” he said.

Give it 20 years or so and we’ll see how the story turns out.