Nuclear fusion just crossed an important threshold toward practical use, researchers say. Using special methods scientists say a fusion reaction can now be ignited with less energy than generated. Until recently, the cost of running this type of reactor was higher than what it could put out. For decades practical nuclear fusion has been merely a pipe dream, just out of reach. But this new discovery could present the world with a revolutionary new energy source. Not only would it be unlimited, it would also be cheap, reports The Independent.
The announcement comes from scientists working at the National Ignition Facility, or NIF, in Livermore, California. According to Raw Story, an experiment last month at NIF involving the world’s most powerful laser, split into 192 beams, resulted in the first controlled fusion reaction to release more energy than used to ignite it. This was by carefully turning the laser beams on a hydrogen fuel pellet.
What is nuclear fusion, anyway? Right now all nuclear power plants in regular use are fission-based. Fission, put simply, is the process of crushing atoms together. This causes the atoms to then break apart, releasing an enormous amount of energy. Sometimes this is called atom splitting. Fusion, then, is the opposite: Forcing atoms together, which also releases a great deal of energy.
The sun relies on fusion to generate its light and other radiation. The reactions are continuous, fueled by the star’s hydrogen. And this is the reason fusion is vastly superior to fission: It uses hydrogen, an element found much more easily than uranium, for example, a fuel used in current nuclear power plants.
Pretty great, right? It gets even better. Unlike the unpleasant toxic waste that comes from fission reactions, fusion’s waste will be, at worst, hot steam or warm water. Sound too good to be true? For five decades prior scientists debated just this. However, the new breakthrough from the NIF shows continuous nuclear fusion could be right around the corner.
To get an idea of the work done at the NIF and to see some cool lasers, check out the video included below.
[Image via National Ignition Facility at Laurence Livermore National Laboratory]