One Step Closer to a Miniature Sun
Dreams of nuclear fusion power have persisted for more than half a century, but making it a reality has proved elusive. Nuclear fusion is the process which powers the stars; unlike nuclear fission which splits an atom apart into smaller atoms, nuclear fusion fuses atoms together to unleash large amounts of energy. Fusion power can provide supply the world’s energy needs for millions of years; one litre of water contains enough deuterium, when fused with tritium, to produce the same amount of energy as 500 litres of petrol.
Fusion power is also safer than nuclear fission power; the natural product of a fusion reaction is a small amount of helium, and the half-life of the radioisotopes produced is less than those from fission. It’s also easier to rapidly shut down a fusion plant, and there is no risk of a runaway reaction.
Unfortunately, there are still significant barriers between the realizations of fusion as a power source. In September 2013 however, the National Ignition Facility (NIF) in California achieved a significant milestone; they were able to generate more energy from a fusion reaction than the amount of energy absorbed by the fuel – the first time it has been achieved anywhere in the world, bringing us one step closer to harnessing the titanic power of the sun.