Scientists have finally managed to bottle the sun.
Researchers with the National Ignition Facility in Livermore, Calif., have ignited controlled nuclear fusion that resulted in the net production of energy. The long-awaited achievement, to be announced December 13 by U.S. Department of Energy officials, is the first time a lab has been able to reproduce the reactions in the sun in a way that leads to more energy coming out of the experiment than going in.
“This is a monumental breakthrough,” says physicist Gilbert Collins of the University of Rochester in New York, who is a former NIF collaborator but was not involved with the research leading to the latest advance. “Since I started in this field, fusion was always 50 years away…. With this achievement, the landscape has changed.”
Fusion potentially provides a clean energy source. The fission reactors used to generate nuclear energy rely on heavy atoms, like uranium, to release energy when they break down into lighter atoms, including some that are radioactive. While it’s comparatively easy to generate energy with fission, it’s an environmental nightmare to deal with the leftover radioactive debris that can remain hazardous for hundreds of millenia.
Controlled nuclear fusion, on the other hand, doesn’t produce such long-lived radioactive waste, but it’s technically much harder to achieve in the first place. In nuclear fusion, light atoms fuse together to create heavier ones. In the sun, that typically occurs when a proton, the nucleus of a hydrogen atom, combines with other protons to form helium. [Continue reading…]