Researchers Making Progress on Path to Fusion Power, Nature Says

Feb 13, 2014 12:02 pm ET

Feb. 13 (Bloomberg) -- Researchers at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory triggered, for the first time, a fusion reaction that generated more energy than needed to start it, a step toward the ultimate goal of replicating the process that powers stars.

The experiment used lasers to blast a can-shaped gold container. That created X-rays, a fraction of which then briefly triggered a fusion reaction in a pellet of hydrogen fuel, according to an article published today in the journal Nature.

The result was “fuel gains,” meaning the energy briefly generated through the reaction exceeded the energy deposited into the hydrogen fuel. Fusion is the process of merging atoms together, releasing energy as they join. It’s different from fission, which is used in nuclear power plants to harness power when the nucleus of an atom splits into smaller parts.

For fusion to become a practical source of power, researchers must achieve “ignition,” when the process becomes self-sustaining and generates more energy than the entire system requires to produce the reaction.

“What’s really exciting is that we are seeing a steadily increasing contribution to the yield,” Omar Hurricane, the study’s lead author, said in a statement.

“There is more work to do and physics problems that need to be addressed before we get to the end,” Hurricane said. “But our team is working to address all the challenges.”

--Editors: Will Wade, Stephen Cunningham