PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) – The nuclear fusion breakthrough scientists announced Tuesday is a monumental step toward the “holy grail of energy,” according to an Oregon State University scientist who’s studied nuclear fusion on and off through his decades-long career. 

Scientists at Lawrence Livermore Laboratory’s National Ignition Facility in California said for the first time they produced more energy in a fusion reaction than was used to ignite it. 

Andrew Klein, an emeritus professor at Oregon State University’s School of Nuclear Science and Engineering, studied fusion for his Ph.D. and did early fusion work in his career. He spent 40 years working in nuclear science and thought he’d see fusion net energy gain earlier in his career. It took longer than he expected, but he’s thrilled to see it now. 

“We’re still a long way away from seeing electrons coming down our wires to be fusion electrons, but it’s the first time we’ve done this, and it’s an important scientific step. And so, it’s something to celebrate,” he said. 

The researchers at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory achieved the result last week, the Energy Department said Tuesday. They said the goal has eluded scientists for decades because fusion happens at such high temperatures and pressures that it is incredibly difficult to control. 

The equipment and experiments also require major investments and state-of-the-art facilities. 

Klein said the machine researchers in California used is the size of three football fields, which is ironic because the way they achieved the net energy gain was by shining lasers on tiny, microscopic particles. 

The lasers compress the target to extremely high densities with the ultimate goal of making the target explode, essentially like a “mini hydrogen bomb,” Klein said. The result creates a superheated plasma environment that’s hot enough for fusion reactions to take place. 

Fusion works when enough force is created to cause hydrogen atoms to press into each other, so they combine into helium. It creates enormous amounts of energy and heat.

A fusion reaction is the opposite of a fission reaction, which is currently used to generate nuclear power across the world. A fission reaction occurs when an atom splits into two or more parts. 

While the nuclear power produced by fission reactions does not produce carbon emissions, it does result in radioactive nuclear waste. Nuclear power created by fusion reactions, however, has the potential to not only produce zero carbon emissions but also to not produce any nuclear waste. 

The byproduct of fusion is helium, which Klein said wouldn’t be radioactive and wouldn’t be a problem.

“It is the holy grail of energy,” Klein said. “So, hopefully, it comes around in a time that helps the long-term climate change problem.” 

The net positive energy produced by nuclear fusion last week was only about enough to boil 10 tea kettles, scientists said. Klein predicts the ability to rely on nuclear fusion as an electricity source is still at least 40 years away. 

He said there’s still some radioactivity involved in the current designs and it could be centuries before researchers find a way to achieve fusion without any radioactivity. 

Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm said that fusion ignition is “one of the most impressive scientific feats of the 21st century.” 

It allows humans to replicate certain conditions that are found only in the stars and the sun. 

With fusion, it’s all about getting particles hot enough and holding them together long enough. The sun is able to create fusion thanks to its astounding gravitational force. 

On Earth, scientists don’t have a way to create a gravitational force that strong. Instead, they rely on things like the lasers used in the California lab, or in the United Kingdom, scientists are attempting to create fusion using a magnetic field. 

Klein knows there’s still a monumental amount of work that needs to be done when it comes to fusion and that the research will cost massive amounts of money. Still, he firmly believes it’s worth investing in. 

This is the future of energy, he said, and he hopes this recent development inspires future scientists. 

“It’s fun research. It’s very exciting. You’re working with really smart people and really good people on some very challenging, fundamental problems that can help humanity. So, you can’t ask for better,” he said. 

Klein dreams of his grandchildren or great-grandchildren one day living in a world powered by nuclear fusion energy. 

The discoveries made in the Livermore lab will likely soon be shared in peer-reviewed publications, but Klein doesn’t believe it will have much impact on the research being done at OSU. He said right now, the university is focusing its work on fission reactors, which will likely be what the world continues to rely on for power in the near-term. 

OSU scientists are looking at ways to develop and deploy advanced reactors within the next 10 years. Klein said they can’t abandon the fission reactor work for fusion reactors because those might still be 40 to 100 years away.