Researchers at the National Ignition Facility have announced that they have done the impossible – produced entirely controllable, sustained nuclear fusion reactions. Their method uses an ultra-high-powered laser beam to force energy into plasma fuel.
The resulting nuclear ‘micro-implosions’ release more energy than is required to initiate the reactions. Experimental reactors have so far all used more power, to contain plasma at extreme temperatures in a torus, than they could produce.
“Because we can control the laser precisely with electronics,” said Arby Deetu, leader of the project, “the rate of energy release is almost constant.”
“Even more important, we don’t need super-heated plasma confined in a magnetic bubble, so our whole production model is simpler and easier to implement.”
Fusion power has long been regarded as the ultimate source of energy, occurring naturally in the stars, including our Sun. The fuel for fusion is abundantly available in our oceans.
But safely harnessing the power of a hydrogen bomb has eluded scientific efforts for more than 60 years.
This is the most promising development yet for tapping fusion energy for commercial use, and could spell the end of mankind’s reliance on fossil fuels and costly alternatives for electricity generation.
The first power plant employing the new technology could be completed by 2020. If it proves viable, we will see a massive shift to electric cars and trucks. Desalination will become cheap and widespread. Food production will go up and prices down. Global warming will become an obsolete curiosity.
Electricity may become a basic human right. We will live in a nuclear future, but without the need for uranium, mining or toxic waste.
ANALYSIS >> SYNTHESIS: How this scenario came to be
“Fusion is the energy source of the sun and the stars. On earth, fusion research is aimed at demonstrating that this energy source can be used to produce electricity in a safe and environmentally benign way, with abundant fuel resources, to meet the needs of a growing world population.”
– ITER Project
“Creating a miniature star on Earth: that’s the goal of the National Ignition Facility (NIF), the world’s largest laser. When completed in 2009, NIF will focus the intense energy of 192 giant laser beams on a BB-sized target filled with hydrogen fuel – fusing, or igniting, the hydrogen atoms’ nuclei. This is the same fusion energy process that makes the stars shine and provides the life-giving energy of the sun.”
– National Ignition Facility