For the past 60 years scientists have wondered how they might be able to turn the nuclear reactions which power the sun into energy we could use on earth through the process of nuclear fusion.
Scientists based in California now believe they are one step closer to the answer. Last night, for the first time, they announced that they were able to extract more energy from their nuclear fusion experiment than they had put into it.
This marks an important step towards the creation of a self-sustaining nuclear fusion reactor.
What is nuclear fusion?
Nuclear fusion is the way stars, including our sun, create energy. At its most basic, hydrogen atoms collide with each other at high speed and form helium atoms whilst releasing huge amounts of energy.
Back on earth scientists have been looking to recreate this process for years, not least because it does not create the same dangerous by-products associated with traditional nuclear power plants.
How did the experiment work?
In order to create energy using nuclear fusion, researchers at the Nuclear Ignition Facility at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory used 192 laser beams to squash a pellet half the diameter of a single hair, in such a way as to cause a release of energy.
The fuel used for the experiment was created using water and was put under huge pressure and extreme temperatures for less than one billionth of a second. The energy created in this short space of time was greater than the energy used to power the experiment.
‘We have waited 60 years to get close to controlled fusion […] We must keep at it’
Director of the Culham Centre for Fusion Energy, Professor Steve Cowley said: “We have waited 60 years to get close to controlled fusion, and we are now close in both magnetic and inertial-confinement research. We must keep at it.
“The engineering milestone is when the whole plant produces more energy than it consumes”.