May 29, 2024
Livermore labs fusion ignition breakthrough is perhaps the most prominent example of how the center of tech innovation and talent in the Bay Area is shifting to–or at least growing to include–the Tri-Valley.

For a brief moment in December, scientists inside a nondescript gray building in the Bay Area suburbs re-created the conditions of the sun.

“It’s a singular moment in humanity,” said Vincent Tang, the principal deputy director for the National Ignition Facility and Photon Science Directorate at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. “The first time that anyone has brought star fire to Earth.”

The breakthrough — fusion ignition — was a stirring moment for the team, some of whom had been working toward this for decades. The achievement was hailed by U.S. Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm as “one of the most impressive scientific feats of the 21st century,” portending the potential for a nearly unlimited source of clean renewable energy. According to Tang, it is “one of the most important missions on earth.”

Laser Bay in the National Ignition Facility at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory on Wednesday, Aug 2, 2023, in Livermore, Calif. (Aric Crabb/Bay Area News Group) 

The Livermore lab, of course, is not new to the Tri-Valley region, a rolling stretch of interconnected cities and towns just over the hills from the East Bay. The lab first opened in 1952, and the fusion ignition research has been ongoing for over 40 years.

But the achievement is perhaps the most prominent example of why the center of tech innovation and talent in the Bay Area is shifting to — or at least growing to include — the Tri-Valley.

In recent years, new biotech offices have sprouted up across the I-680 corridor, which includes the towns of Livermore, Dublin and Pleasanton. Over 450 technology companies are now located in the Tri-Valley, and worker productivity is among the highest in the nation — at least according to regional boosters like Tri-Valley Connect. Between 2018 and 2022, the region saw a 60% increase in tech companies.

“There’s as much innovation going on in the 680 corridor as Austin, Texas,” said John Albrecht, a development manager at the Port of Oakland, referring to the Texas city that has become one of the fastest-growing tech centers in the country. “It’s extraordinary really.”

The work at Lawrence Livermore National Lab is a huge part of that. Fusion ignition is the point at which a nuclear fusion reaction becomes self-sustaining — the same reaction that powers the sun and the stars. Until December, it had never been achieved in a lab setting. By producing this reaction and achieving a net energy gain, scientists opened new doors to potential energy uses that lack some of the same concerns as traditional nuclear energy. Unlike nuclear fission power plants, fusion reactions do not create harmful long-term radioactive waste.

Vincent Tang looks over laser glass and flash lamps displayed in the laser bay of the National Ignition Facility at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory on Wednesday, Aug 2, 2023, in Livermore, Calif. (Aric Crabb/Bay Area News Group) 

Although the work done at the national lab is perhaps the most high profile, potentially game-changing research is occurring across the Tri-Valley. Dublin’s AEye is pioneering new lidar systems — a light-based, more accurate form of radar — for autonomous transport. San Ramon-based medical device company Raydiant Oximetry is developing noninvasive devices to help monitor the health of babies during childbirth. Other companies are tackling gene therapy, low-carbon jet fuel, next-generation blood screening tools, and much more.

Just a few decades ago, much of the Tri-Valley area was undeveloped. Since then, the region has grown rapidly, epitomized by Dublin, the fastest-growing city in California. The Tri-Valley is quickly proving to be a viable option for tech companies and employees turned off by the high cost of living and office space elsewhere in the Bay Area.

According to Jeff Bellisario, executive director of the Bay Area Council Economic Institute, an economic and policy think tank, the foundation for the Tri-Valley’s boom was laid in large part by the prominence of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and the Sandia National Laboratory. The two labs employ thousands and attract talent from across the country. Nearly 40% of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory’s workforce lives in the Livermore Valley.

Beyond the laboratories, the appeal of the region comes from its potential to connect cities in the Central Valley and cities by the Bay, effectively forming a Northern California Megaregion. Geographically, the Tri-Valley sits directly in the center of a map ringed by cities like Sacramento, Oakland, San Francisco, Stockton and San Jose. The state has considered building a high-speed rail system that would connect Stockton to the Dublin BART station.

“You don’t always think regionally of the Tri-Valley as an innovation hub,” Bellisario said  “But there’s huge potential [in] what comes next for this area.”

There are, of course, serious challenges. The rapid development in Dublin has led to growing pains, overcrowding and a disconnect between new and old residents. Livermore also has struggled to maintain its agricultural heritage.

Nor will the Tri-Valley entirely eclipse the clout of Silicon Valley anytime soon. Top-tier talent graduating from schools like MIT and Harvard who have never heard of the Tri-Valley are still drawn by the allure and history of Silicon Valley, Bellisario said.

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Katie Marcel, COO of the Innovation Tri-Valley leadership group formed to advance the area and attract businesses, believes the region can conquer those challenges. Innovation, according to Marcel, can be integrated into what the Tri-Valley already does well.

Across the valley, companies are combining the region’s agricultural roots with new technological advancements. Marcel described a moment recently when she found herself at a stoplight in between a Tesla and a horseback rider. Monarch Tractor, a company building the first automatic farm equipment, is based in Livermore. A local vineyard is currently piloting an autonomous tractor. In Marcel’s view, as the region transforms, the Tri-Valley has an opportunity to serve as an example of how the dueling aspects of California’s nature can co-exist.

“While it seems rapid, this has been very intentional, very smart, and actually slow growth,” Marcel said.  “It’s not an overnight sensation.”

Marcel’s group has a playbook extending to 2040 that aims to map out a blueprint for how the region will grow. That plan lays out 24 recommendations that Marcel called its “true north,” which include everything from building a university research presence, creating “smart, walkable communities,” developing small business incubators, and piloting renewable energy microgrids.

There is, of course, some luck to it. Silicon Valley, for instance, was not the result of a master plan. And no matter how much planning is done, the Tri-Valley will continue to face the same headwinds with which the state as a whole is grappling, including the higher costs of doing business and higher taxes that may have played a role in some high-profile companies departing the state.

“There’s always going to be these California issues,” Bellisario said. “But there’s a lot of reason to be bullish about the Bay Area, the Tri-Valley, and the megaregion.”

In a region that appears to many to be stumbling, with warnings of “doom loops” and further tech layoffs, the growth of the Tri-Valley may be confirmation that the Bay Area is still at the center of the innovation conversation, both statewide and nationally.

Fusion ignition, and all its potential uses, is vivid evidence of that.

“For me, this is proof that we can still do really big things,” Tang said.

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