Progress on Nuclear Fusion
Cold fusion has long been a favorite subject of sci-fi authors and playwrights (see: The Saint), but two other forms of fusion are inching closer to becoming actual long-term energy solutions — producing more energy than they consume.
The quest to tame the nuclear fusion power that fuels the sun and make it a reliable energy source on earth has taken a step forward at the $3.5bn National Ignition Facility in California. Focusing 192 powerful laser beams on a tiny pellet of nuclear fuel, NIF scientists have for the first time managed to release more fusion energy than was required to trigger the reaction. Their research, funded by the US Department of Energy, is published online in Nature, the science journal.
“It is one of the most promising energy technologies we could possibly develop,” said Omar Hurricane, lead scientist on the project at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. “But it is going to be a long slog. We have to balance the large long-term investment with potentially a very large pay-off at the end.”
Although laser fusion is expensive “big science”, it is vying for public investment with an even more expensive approach: magnetic fusion. This heats up the fusion fuel — two heavy isotopes of hydrogen: deuterium and tritium — inside a large doughnut-shaped reactor, where it is held in place by strong magnetic fields. An important international magnetic fusion scheme, the $20bn ITER project, is under construction in the south of France.