An experiment by the National Ignition Facility (NIF) in late September has confirmed they have gotten past the first step in harnessing the sun’s power here on earth. The obstacle they have overcome is getting more energy out of a fuel burn than what goes into it. Though they did not achieve the NIF’s standard of “ignition,” they did achieve a release of energy greater than that which was put into the fuel capsule. Only about 10-20% of the energy actually makes it to the capsule, resulting in losses elsewhere.
The process of nuclear fusion has been highly researched and highly prized in the scientific community. The reason being that it is a very clean burning technology, and there are no radioactive wastes we must take care of like in nuclear fission. Efforts to develop this technology however have been largely unsuccessful. The theories surrounding nuclear fusion have not translated well in reality.
The experiments done by the NIF have helped to get past at least the first hurdle. They used a bubble of hydrogen that is heated and compressed by 192 high-power lasers until a miniature star comes to life. The facility then takes a pulse with 1 billionth of a Joule of energy. They then multiply that energy millions of times by running the beams through amplifiers.
The result is an efficient, clean-burning, and relatively cost effective form of energy. 192 beams carry 1000 times more energy than the generating capacity of all power plants in the U.S. Because each blast requires a mere millionth of a second to achieve full amplification, the cost for a consumer to have this form of electricity is less than a meal at a restaurant. The cost for research and equipment is funded largely by the US Department of Energy.