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What Comes After a World’s First in Fusion Research

Third is the cost of the target. Woodruff, like Bodner, said it needs to be about 25 cents, depending on plant design. “The target cannot be too complicated,” he wrote. “The more manufacturing steps that are needed, the more costly will be the target.” And fourth, he said, is the cost of the factory that makes the targets.

Of those four objectives, Livermore has put almost all its effort into maximizing the gain. That’s appropriate for a national lab, for which the science comes first. Also, one of Livermore’s main jobs is to oversee the nation’s stockpile of nuclear weapons. Creating a fusion reaction is a way to study what happens inside a nuclear weapon when it detonates. Commercialization of fusion power is not Livermore’s mission.

The other three objectives will require some science plus a lot of engineering. Woodruff, who runs Woodruff Scientific, which makes research gear in Santa Fe, N.M., wrote that Livermore, by achieving ignition, has “paved the way” for private companies working on laser fusion. He named five — Xcimer Energy, Focused Energy, Marvel Fusion, HB11 and First Light Fusion — and said “there may be more coming.” Most fusion companies use a different approach, which is to hold the plasma in place with powerful magnets. Even before Livermore’s announcement, 21 of 25 fusion companies surveyed by the Fusion Industry Association predicted fusion power would be commercially viable by 2040. Three of them predicted viability by 2030. (But you wouldn’t expect them to be pessimistic.)

“The timeline is the function of the will we have and the amount of investment that society puts forth and the number of people who get excited and want to work on these challenges. The excitement is at a level I’ve never seen,” Sam Wurzel, the technology-to-market adviser at ARPA-E, said in an interview. Scott Hsu, who is the Department of Energy’s lead fusion coordinator, said, “Don’t count fusion out as a solution to our 2050 targets” for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Livermore’s big blast on Dec. 5 has energized the long-suffering community of fusion scientists. True, there’s many a slip ’twixt the shot and the watt, but ignition is nevertheless an exciting advance.

Pressure in the global supply chain increased modestly in November for a second month but remains well below its pandemic highs, according to an index maintained by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. The biggest contributor to the November increase was delivery times in China. Delivery times in the United States improved. The worst month for the New York Fed’s index was December 2021.

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