(NaturalNews) Scientists at a top U.S. laboratory have surpassed a critical milestone in their development of a process that would create self-sustaining nuclear fusion.
According to the BBC, the ability to harness fusion - the process that powers the sun - "could provide an unlimited and cheap source of energy" for the long-term future. And it would alleviate current dangers and problems of nuclear waste associated with present nuclear power plants (which, at least, do not emit harmful elements into the atmosphere like traditional coal-fired or gas power plants).
"But to be viable, fusion power plants would have to produce more energy than they consume, which has proven elusive," BBC reported.
However, now a breakthrough by researchers at the National Ignition Facility has provided some encouraging results regarding the upscaling of fusion.
One small step for Mankind
The research facility, which is located at the Livermore lab in California, uses 192 beams from the world's most powerful laser to heat up and then compress a small pellet of hydrogen fuel. The pellet is heated to the point where nuclear fusion reactions can happen.
"The BBC understands that during an experiment in late September, the amount of energy released through the fusion reaction exceeded the amount of energy being absorbed by the fuel - the first time this had been achieved at any fusion facility in the world," the British news service reported.
This is a small step toward the lab's stated goal of "ignition," where nuclear fusion can generate as much energy as supplied by the lasers. Researchers say that happens because known "inefficiencies" in different parts of the system have meant not all the laser's energy is subsequently delivered to the fuel pellet.
Still, the latest development is being described as the most meaningful and important step towards developing fusion in recent years. It also shows that the lab is well along the path towards achieving ignition and self-sustaining fusions.
For some 50 years, scientists have attempted to create controlled nuclear fusion but have fallen short. There is hope that the latest development at the NIF will provide the breakthrough that researchers have been looking for.
As noted by the BBC:
In 2009, NIF officials announced an aim to demonstrate nuclear fusion producing net energy by 30 September 2012. But unexpected technical problems ensured the deadline came and went; the fusion output was less than had originally been predicted by mathematical models.
Soon after, the $3.5bn facility shifted focus, cutting the amount of time spent on fusion versus nuclear weapons research - which was part of the lab's original mission.
NIF project one of several
But the latest experiments, the report said, "agree well with predictions of energy output" that ultimately have provided a needed and welcomed boost to ignition development at NIF. The advances have also been encouraging for those supportive of fusion energy in general.
The process is fundamentally different than current nuclear power, a process that creates energy by splitting atoms rather than combining them together in fusion.
The NIF, which is based at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory - one of the nation's few nuclear labs - is just one of several projects around the world focused on developing nuclear fusions. "They include the multi-billion-euro ITER facility, currently under construction in Cadarache, France," BBC reported.
"However, ITER will take a different approach to the laser-driven fusion at NIF; the Cadarache facility will use magnetic fields to contain the hot fusion fuel - a concept known as magnetic confinement," the report said.
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