U.S. reaches a fusion power milestone. Will it be enough to save the planet?

Scientists with the U.S. Department of Energy have reached a breakthrough in nuclear fusion.

For the first time ever in a laboratory, researchers were able to generate more energy from fusion reactions than they used to start the process. The total gain was around 150%.

The achievement came at the National Ignition Facility (NIF), a $3.5 billion laser complex at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California. For more than a decade, NIF has struggled to meet its stated goal of producing a fusion reaction that generates more energy than it consumes.

Nuclear fusion is considered by some scientists to be a potential energy of the future, particularly as it produces little waste and no greenhouse gases.

“If this fusion energy breakthrough is true, it could be a game changer for the world,” tweeted Ted Lieu, a member of Congress from California.

Fusion differs from fission, the technique currently used in nuclear power plants, by fusing two atomic nuclei instead of splitting one.

Still, the long-term potential is staggering, says Arati Dasgupta, a nuclear scientist with the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory. Whereas a giant pile of carbon-spewing coal might generate electricity for a matter of minutes, the same quantity of fusion fuel could run a power plant for years–with no carbon dioxide emissions. “This is a great demonstration of the possibility,” Dasgupta says. But, she adds, many technical issues remain. “It’s a huge undertaking.”

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