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Lasers just re-created the power of the Sun in a lab

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Jun 30, 2014, 5:27 PM EDT

For a long while now, researchers at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California have been struggling. They've been trying to create nuclear fusion, the process by which the sun generates energy, using lasers. They've been at it since 2010 and haven't really had much to show for their hard work, at least not until now.

Just yesterday, Dr. Omar Hurricane published a report stating that he and his team had done the (nearly) impossible: They'd created artificial nuclear fusion without the detonation of a nuclear warhead, which is good, because the first one of those completely removed the island of Elugelab from the map. Harnessing that destructive power as a source of the ultimate green energy has been one of science's most vexing quests ever since. Labs have even gotten very short bursts of laser-powered fusion reactions to work before, but they've always produced less energy than they needed to get going.

All that changed when Dr. Hurricane and his colleagues ran their most recent test of the laser housed within the National Ignition Facility (NIF). 500 trillion watts of focused laser power impacted an aperture no larger than a number 2 pencil, and for the first time in human history, the resulting fusion reaction produced more energy than it ate up. While this may sound like Dr. Hurricane and his team have found the holy grail of green energy, the result was not only brief, but the final step of the process, in which the fusion reaction actually feeds upon itself to create energy on its own, did not take place. It's also important to understand that while the fuel underwent fusion to release more energy than it actually absorbed, the fuel only absorbed a small fraction of the total amount of energy poured into the lasers, so the experiment as a whole was still decidedly energy-negative.

So if you're looking for the end to all the world's energy needs thanks to the creation of what amounts to lab-born stars, we're still not quite there yet. Now that the NIF has fused hydrogen into helium, however, humanity is one step closer to that unbelievable goal. Dr. Hurricane isn't sure if the NIF is capable of reaching ignition, but spurred on by this latest success, he's on the record as saying "we're certainly going to try."

Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, via NPR