From California to Iceland: The Race for Clean Energy and Carbon Capture

Last month, the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California successfully achieved controlled fusion using the world’s largest laser system. Although the fusion reaction lasted less than a billionth of a second, it was a crucial breakthrough after six decades of research. Fusion has the potential to provide endless, carbon-free power, revolutionizing human energy production. However, there are still significant challenges to overcome before fusion becomes a viable commercial power source. The laboratory aims to increase the repetition rate and gain of fusion reactions for it to be truly feasible and economically competitive.

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Key Insights:

  • The Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory successfully achieved fusion, creating a reaction that produced more energy than the lasers put in.
  • The National Ignition Facility (NIF) at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory is the largest, most energetic laser facility in the world.
  • The process of fusion involves forcing atoms of hydrogen to fuse together, releasing energy.
  • Effusion has the potential to become a commercial power source that is endless and carbon-free, revolutionizing human energy consumption.
  • The NIF has faced challenges over the years and has been nicknamed „Not Ignition Facility“ and „Never Ignition Facility“ until its recent breakthrough.
  • The goal of fusion research at the NIF is to achieve ignition, where the fusion reactions become self-sustaining and produce more energy than the lasers input.
  • The next big hurdles for commercial fusion power are increasing the repetition rate and getting more gain out of the targets.
  • The Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory believes commercial fusion power could be demonstrated within 20 years with enough funding and dedication.
  • In California’s Imperial Valley by the Salton Sea, a new lithium industry is emerging to supply the growing demand for electric vehicle batteries.
  • Lithium operations powered by clean geothermal energy are being developed in the Salton Sea region, known as „Lithium Valley.“
  • The region has a world-class lithium resource, estimated to produce over 300,000 tons annually, more than half of the world’s current supply.
  • Companies like Energy Source Minerals and bhe Renewables are investing in lithium operations in the Salton Sea, aiming to supply American car manufacturers and reduce dependence on imported lithium.
  • Lithium is a crucial component in rechargeable electric car batteries and its domestic production can help reduce costs and carbon emissions associated with transportation.
  • The transition from fossil fuels to sustainable electric power, particularly in the auto industry, is considered the new industrial revolution.
  • Direct air capture is a promising technology that can remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, with the world’s first commercial plant, Orca, built in Iceland.
  • Orca uses fans and special filters to capture carbon dioxide from the air, which is then stored underground using a process called „carbon mineral storage.“
  • The captured carbon dioxide is dissolved in water and injected into volcanic rock, where it reacts with minerals and hardens into stone within years.
  • Direct air capture is an expensive and energy-intensive process, but private and government investments are driving its development.
  • Occidental Petroleum is planning to build the world’s largest direct air capture plant in Texas and aims to become a carbon management company.
  • Occidental’s carbon capture process involves using the captured carbon dioxide to produce oil that emits less carbon than the CO2 injected to obtain it, making it carbon-neutral.
  • There are concerns that direct air capture could be seen as a solution to continue business as usual, rather than a means to complement emission reduction efforts and phase out fossil fuels.
  • The next decade is crucial for the scaling up of direct air capture technology to make a significant impact on carbon reduction and climate change mitigation.


Last month, the nearest star to the Earth was in California, in a laboratory. For the first time, the world’s largest lasers forced atoms of hydrogen to fuse together in the same kind of energy-producing reaction that fires the sun. It lasted less than a billionth of a second, but after six decades of toil and failure, the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory proved it could be done. Fusion could become commercial power one day, endless and carbon-free. This breakthrough has the potential to change human destiny. After December’s breakthrough, we were invited to tour the lab and meet the team that brought star power down to earth.

Uncontrolled fusion is easy to master, so long ago. Fusion is what a hydrogen bomb does, releasing energy by forcing atoms of hydrogen to fuse together. What’s been impossible is harnessing the fires of Armageddon into something useful. The US Department of Energy’s Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory helps maintain nuclear weapons and experiments with high-energy physics. One hour east of San Francisco, we met Livermore’s director, Kim Budil, in the lab that made history—the National Ignition Facility.

The National Ignition Facility, or NIF, is the world’s largest, most energetic laser. It was built starting in the 1990s to create conditions in the laboratory that had previously only been accessible in the most extreme objects in the universe, like the center of giant planets or the Sun, or in operating nuclear weapons. And the goal was to really be able to study that kind of very high-energy, high-density condition in a lot of detail.

The NIF was built for $3.5 billion to ignite self-sustaining fusion. They tried nearly 200 times over 13 years but, like a car with a weak battery, the atomic engine would never turn over. NIF drew some nicknames: it was called the „Not Ignition Facility,“ the „Never Ignition Facility,“ and more recently, the „Nearly Ignition Facility.“ But this recent event has really put the „Ignition“ in the NIF.

Ignition means igniting a fusion reaction that puts out more energy than the lasers put in. So if you can get it hot enough, dense enough, fast enough, and hold it together long enough, the fusion reactions start to self-sustain. And that’s really what happened here on December 5th.

Last month, the laser shot fired from this control room put two units of energy into the experiment. Atoms began fusing, and about three units of energy came out. Tammy Ma, who leads the lab’s laser fusion research initiatives, got the call while waiting for a plane. She burst into tears of joy. It was just tears of joy, and I actually started shaking and jumping up and down, you know, at the gate before everybody boarded. So everybody was like, „What is that crazy woman doing?“ Tammy Ma is crazy about engineering.

She showed us why the problem of fusion would bring anyone to tears. First, there’s the energy required, which is delivered by lasers in these tubes that are longer than a football field. Each one of these lasers is one of the most energetic in the world, and you have 192 of them. That’s pretty hot, actually, millions of degrees. The beams strike with the power 1,000 times greater than the entire national power grid. Your lights don’t go out at home when they take a shot because these capacitors store the electricity in the tubes. The laser beams amplify by racing back and forth, and the flash is a fraction of a second. They have to get to these incredible conditions, hotter than the center of the Sun. All of that, you know, very high-energy densities, all that wallop vaporizes a target nearly too small to see.

Michael Stadermann’s team builds the hollow target shells that are loaded with hydrogen at 430 degrees below zero. The precision that we need for making these shells is extreme. The shells are almost perfectly round. They have a roughness that is 100 times better than a mirror. Think about that. If it wasn’t smoother than a mirror, imperfections would make the implosion of atoms uneven, causing a fusion fizzle. So these need to be as close to perfect as humanly possible.

The target could be larger, but then the laser would have to be larger. On December 5th, they used a thicker target so it would hold its shape longer, and they figured out how to boost the power of the laser shot without damaging the lasers. Tammy Ma showed us an intact target assembly. That diamond shell you saw is inside that silver-colored cylinder. This assembly goes into a blue vacuum chamber three stories tall, bristling with lasers and instruments. One physicist said, „You should see the target we blasted December 5th,“ which made us ask, „Could we see this before?“

This is the first time I’m seeing it.

For Tammy Ma and for the world, this is the first look at what’s left of the target assembly that changed history, an artifact like Bell’s first phone or Edison’s light bulb. This thing is going to end up in the Smithsonian. The target cylinder was blasted to oblivion. The copper support that held it was peeled backward. The explosion on the end of this was hotter than the sun. It was hotter than the center of the sun. We were able to achieve temperatures that were the hottest in the entire solar system, which would make an astronomical change in electric power.

Unlike today’s nuclear plants, which split atoms apart, fusing them is many times more powerful with little long-term radiation, and it’s easy to turn off, so no meltdowns. But getting from the first ignition to a power plant will be hard. We take, on average, a little more than one shot per day. If this was theoretically a commercial power plant, how many shots a day would be required? Approximately 10 shots per second would be required.

The other big challenge, of course, is not just increasing the repetition rate but also getting the gain out of the targets to go up to about a factor of a hundred. Not only would the reactions have to produce 100 times more energy, but a power plant would need 900,000 perfect diamond shells a day. Also, the lasers would have to be much more efficient. Remember, December’s breakthrough put two units of energy in and got three out. Well, it took 300 units of power to fire the lasers. By that standard, it was 300 in, three out.

That detail was not front and center at the Department of Energy’s December news conference, which fused the advance with an unlikely timeline. Today’s announcement is a huge step forward to the president’s goal of achieving commercial fusion within a decade. When you heard that President Biden’s goal was commercial fusion power in a decade, you thought what? I thought it was nonsense.

Charles Seife is a trained mathematician, science author, and professor at New York University who wrote a 2008 book on the hyping of fusion power. I don’t want to diminish the fact that this is a real achievement. Ignition is a milestone that people have been trying to do for years. I’m afraid that there are so many technical hurdles, even after this great achievement, that 10 years is a pipe dream. Those hurdles, Seife says, include scaling up Livermore’s achievement.

More than 30 private companies are designing various approaches to fusion power, and $3 billion in private money flowed into those companies in the last 13 months, including bets by Bill Gates and Google. Amid all this speculation, Lawrence Livermore’s director, Kim Budil, is certain of one thing. Can you do it again? Absolutely.

Last month, the world’s top climate scientists delivered a sobering warning: act now before the climate breakdown becomes unstoppable. One new technology gaining traction is called direct air capture, which vacuums carbon dioxide out of thin air and locks it away underground. We went to Iceland to see the world’s first commercial direct air capture plant in operation. It’s called Orca and is built by Climeworks, a Swiss company.

This plant is a modular design that can be easily assembled. Climb Works is also building a new plant in Iceland 10 times the size of Orca. Direct air capture is expensive and energy-intensive, but it’s attracting investments from companies like Microsoft, Airbus, and Swiss Re. However, some critics are concerned that oil companies are promoting this technology to continue business as usual.

Occidental Petroleum, for example, plans to build the world’s largest direct air capture plant in Texas. While it aims to capture carbon dioxide and inject it underground to extract more oil, critics argue that the focus should be on reducing emissions and transitioning to renewable energy sources. The next decade will be critical in determining the growth and impact of the direct air capture industry.