American scientists who have been trying to produce energy from nuclear fusion say they have moved a big step forward in their research, which aims to harness the process originally used in hydrogen bombs to produce clean, abundant energy.
Scientists from the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory report they were able to create a type of fusion reaction by bombarding a microscopic pellet of fuel with beams from 192 powerful lasers to compress its component parts – hydrogen isotopes known as deuterium and tritium – and fuse them together at the atomic level. This generated large amounts of heat and other nuclear reactions that together represented more energy than the fuel originally possessed.
The fusion of atomic nuclei is the same process that fuels stars throughout the universe, including our sun. Scientists at the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory’s National Ignition Facility are working on a much smaller scale, of course. Their ultimate goal — creating a sustainable, controllable fusion reaction that is a net positive source of energy — is some years away.
A practical method of generating energy from fusion has been a physicists’ dream for decades. Although fusion is at the heart of the hydrogen warheads the world superpowers built in the 20th century, the process of fusion itself would not produce the dangerous radiation that is created by modern nuclear power generators, which use nuclear fission to create energy from enriched uranium fuel.