Okay, okay, okay, okay, guys. Scientists at the National Ignition Facility have taken the first itty bitty baby steps towards fusion and I’m having trouble containing my excitement.
First of all, they’re using 192 laser beams, which are pointed at a gold chamber that converts the lasers into X-ray pulses, which then squeeze a small fuel pellet and make it implode and undergo fusion. That anyone ever figured out even how to do this is completely nutso.
Secondly, the lead researcher is named Omar Hurricane. I have never in my life heard a better name. He sounds like a comic book character. Please someone write a comic starring Omar Hurricane and his band of laser-wielding scientists.
And then there’s what it actually means. So far, they’ve been able to get 15 kilojoules of energy out of a fuel pellet that was blasted with 10 kilojoules. But, as The Guardian points out, much more energy is delivered by the lasers (and lost in the conversion to X-rays): “The lasers unleash nearly two megajoules of energy on their target, the equivalent, roughly, of two standard sticks of dynamite.”
Even so, this is a hugely significant tiny step forward toward recreating the clean energy production that happens in the heart of stars.
Due to a peculiarity of nuclear physics, you can release energy either by 1) breaking apart heavy atoms, or 2) forcing together light atoms. Breaking apart is called fission and forcing together is called fusion. We already know how to generate energy by man-made fission, but generating energy by man-made fusion remains an aspiration. (Of course, we know how to build bombs both ways. Nuclear and thermonuclear bombs respectively.)
Essentially, solar power is fusion, though. Because the sun is a fusion reactor, and its light lands on our planet and makes everything happen.