Researchers at Lawrence Livermore National laboratory have just reached a milestone in the quest for nuclear fusion power. For the first time ever, they’ve been able to produce fusion reactions that produced more energy than put in by using a giant laser called the National Ignition Facility or NIF. This laser can use 500 trillion watts of power and was used by the researchers to compress hydrogen atoms together to form helium. However they haven’t been able to achieve “ignition”, the point where the reaction can match the entire power of the lasers being used to create it. Although nearly 2 mega-joules of energy are focused onto the target, only a small fraction of this energy reaches the hydrogen fuel.
So why should we care? Modern nuclear reactors employ nuclear fission. This involves the splitting of uranium atoms and utilizing the heat created by the splitting of atoms to produce steam which then generates electricity. This method of producing energy produces radioactive waste that must be buried as the technology to recycle and destroy them does not yet exist. Furthermore, nuclear fission reactors require the mining and enrichment of uranium. Nuclear fusion on the other hand doesn’t produce radioactive waste, creates zero carbon emissions and provides almost unlimited energy. Most importantly, there is absolutely no risk of a nuclear meltdown or release of radioactivity like nuclear fission reactors. This is because the conditions required to produce nuclear fusion are so stringent that if anything went wrong, the entire reaction would cease. Therefore there would be no radioactive decay.
Harnessing the true power of the sun is nuclear fusion. It is estimated that the obtainable hydrogen fuel reserves in the ocean would be able to power nuclear fusion for 150 billion years or 30 years longer than the Sun is believed to last.