Few technologies hold more promise than fusion energy, but this energy source has remained maddeningly just beyond our reach for decades. As the NYT reports, the process behind harnessing fusion energy sounds easy enough:
The basic concept behind fusion is simple: Squeeze hydrogen atoms hard enough and they fuse together in helium. A helium atom weighs slightly less than the original hydrogen atoms, and by Einstein’s equation E = mc2, that liberated bit of mass turns into energy. Hydrogen is so abundant that unlike fossil fuels or fissionable material like uranium, it will never run out.
Yet accomplishing this in a controlled environment has proved devilishly difficult. Fusion can be thought of as the Brazil of energy: always the one to watch, whose day in the sun is perpetually 30 years away. It always helps to take a skeptical view of the kind of pro-fusion enthusiasm that has consistently outstripped the reality of the energy source’s progress over the years. With that said, recent progress at California’s Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory has injected new hope for the fusion dream. There researchers produced a fusion reaction that had an energy output greater than its input for the first time ever last fall. More:
[A] team headed by Omar A. Hurricane announced that it had used Livermore’s giant lasers to fuse hydrogen atoms and produce flashes of energy, like miniature hydrogen bombs. The amount of energy produced was tiny — the equivalent of what a 60-watt light bulb consumes in five minutes. But that was five times the output of attempts a couple of years ago.
The NYT concedes that “practical fusion would still likely be decades away,” a familiar refrain for any long-time fusion observers. But hope springs eternal, if only because of the tremendous upside fusion holds for humanity’s bid to produce enough energy to thrive in the centuries to come.