Scientists made a major breakthrough in the quest for the ultimate energy source: fusion. Reports from the National Ignition Facility (NIF) indicate that scientists generated more power out than was put in, a long sought after goal for the development of fusion. The NIF uses giant lasers to shoot a fuel pellet made up of hydrogen. Unlike conventional nuclear power that uses energy from splitting atoms, fusion energy forces atoms to fuse together, with energy as a byproduct.
Fusion energy has been seen as the Holy Grail for energy. It theoretically could provide the world with endless amounts of clean baseload energy. The fuel source – hydrogen isotopes – would be limitless and available to all countries. It would not have the long-lived radioactive byproducts that nuclear fission experiences. And there is a negligible chance of a meltdown issue, as there isn't a runaway chain reaction like with fission.
But fusion is really difficult to do. Located within the Lawrence Livermore National Lab (LLNL), the NIF has been working on fusion for years, but progress has been frustratingly slow. The problem has been that when shooting the 2 millimeterwide fuel pellet, it wouldn't crush symmetrically. This limited how much energy the scientists could realistically achieve. In 2012 Congress narrowed the NIF's mission, a rebuke for failing to achieve its much-hyped goals of reaching "ignition," the point at which the fusion reaction becomes self-sustaining.
The latest progress at the NIF is significant, but the point at which fusion can become a realistic power source remains decades away. Fusion scientists and engineers are confident they can build a practical power plant sometime in the future, but the economics are highly uncertain. One of the main obstacles to future progress will be budget constraints, although after years of suffering budget cuts, Congress increased the fusion 2014 budget by $100 million.
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Written by James Burgess at Oilprice.com.