Enervated Australian scientists are already flagging the prospects for development of a major new domestic industry after US physicists announced they had achieved the “holy grail of physics” by successfully producing surplus energy from a nuclear fusion reaction.

The experiment, conducted within the National Ignition Facility (NIF) at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) in California, used strong ultraviolet lasers to heat a fuel capsule filled with deuterium and tritium so much that it imploded.

This increased the pressure and temperature inside the capsule, forcing the deuterium and tritium in the capsule – each a slightly different form of hydrogen, with a different number of neutrons – to join together, releasing energy in the process.

The process mirrors the way that the sun works – and by aligning 192 lasers to deliver 2.05 megajoules (MJ) of energy to the target, scientists were able to produce a total output of 3.15 MJ of fusion energy.

That’s a net energy gain of 56 per cent, and marks the first time after a decade of NIF experiments that the experiment has produced more energy than was put into it.

The 1.1 MJ gain is only enough energy to boil two kettlesful of water – but because deuterium and tritium can be easily sourced from sea water, the process should be easy to scale dramatically.

Expanded to commercial scale, scientists have said, could use 3.79 litres of seawater to produce as much energy as 1,135 litres of petrol.

Having achieved something that scientists have been pursuing for decades with occasional encouraging successes, the process is being heralded as a new form of energy generation that will, once scaled and commercialised, deliver a completely new form of clean energy.

“We have had a theoretical understanding of fusion for over a century, but the journey from knowing to doing can be long and arduous,” director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy Dr Arati Prabhakar said as the findings were announced.

“Today’s milestone shows what we can do with perseverance.”

Superlatives were flying thick and fast, with LLNL director Dr Kim Budil calling the pursuit of laboratory fusion “one of the most significant scientific challenges ever tackled by humanity” and US Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer lauding an “astonishing scientific advance [that] puts us on the precipice of a future no longer reliant on fossil fuels, but instead powered by new clean fusion energy.”

It hardly marks an end to the need for current fossil fuel reduction initiatives, however: commercialising the technology is expected to take decades – although this period could be shortened significantly as governments join the world’s scientific community to commercialise the technique.

The dawn of a new industry

The US government was quick to throw its hat in the ring, with Schumer announcing that country’s government will invest $971 million ($US624 million) in the nationwide Inertial Confinement Fusion (ICF) program to help it continue its work.

It’s the first in what is likely to become a flood of investments as the push for large-scale nuclear fusion creates a major new growth industry – complementing recent surges in government investment in industries like renewable energy, advanced manufacturing, and quantum computing.

Australian scientists encouraged the government to jump on the bandwagon, with DSTG/University of Adelaide Professor Miftar Ganija – leader of the Centre for Advanced Defence Research Program – calling the announcement “like a dream” and saying that “using lasers to generate fusion power would be as significant as the first Moon landing.”

“The breakthrough… will likely hold the answer to the world’s clean energy problems,” he said. “On top of the vast benefits we would accrue from a fusion power generator, nuclear fusion could generate billions of dollars in income for Australia through technology spin-offs and start-ups along the way.”

Although LLNL scientists warn that it will be a few decades before fusion plants are generating large-scale energy, analyst firms are already floating numbers, with one firm suggesting that – despite costing 30 times more than conventional fission-based nuclear power plants – the nuclear fusion market could be worth $535 billion ($US344.24 billion) by 2030.

That market will come not only from the direct production of energy, but the development and sale of enabling technologies including materials capable of handling the extremely high heat involved in the fusion process.

The industry has been here before: the promise of easily accessible fusion seemed tantalisingly close after the 1989 announcement, by scientists Martin Fleischmann and Stanley Pons, that they had developed a way to generate energy using fusion processes at room temperature.

‘Cold fusion’ quickly became a major research area, but just as quickly turned into a notorious hoax after the scientific community found it could not replicate the findings, and ultimately debunked the research as baseless pseudoscience.