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Holy Grail of Clean Energy Edges Closer

Scientists in California have successfully repeated a historic nuclear fusion breakthrough in their quest to replicate the process that powers the sun.

Image illustrating nuclear fusion

Nuclear fusion is regarded by many as the 'holy grail' of clean energy as the process produces virtually no waste, making it a climate friendly, safe, and reliable source of near unlimited power - if we can get it to work.

The fusion process is the same one that powers our sun: you can think of a star as one gigantic fusion reactor. Hydrogen atoms forced together under immense heat and pressure break their atomic bonds, fusing into a new heavier element, helium. Some mass is lost in the process, and great amounts of energy are released as a result. This is what Einstein's famous formula E=mc² describes: the tiny bit of lost mass (m), multiplied by the square of the speed of light (c²), results in a very large figure (E), which is the amount of energy created by a fusion reaction.

Unlike fission, or ‘splitting the atom’ - used in existing nuclear power stations - there’s no risk of a chain reaction meltdown, and no dangerous radioactive waste at the end of the process. No wonder that there are multiple labs around the world trying to harness its magical powers.

Last week, scientists at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, California, used lasers to create the super-hot temperatures needed for fusion to occur. Their Oppenheimer moment came in December last year when they achieved the first ever net energy gain - where the fusion energy output exceeds that input by the lasers - and the Washington Post revealed that they’ve done it again, although detailed findings have yet to be released.

Whilst there is a common adage in the power industry: “Fusion power is always just 10 years away,” progress in harnessing fusion is unquestionable and last week's result at Lawrence Livermore edges things along that little bit further.

In an audacious move earlier this year, which you may have missed, Washington-based fusion power startup Helion signed the world's first fusion power supply deal, promising to deliver Microsoft at least 50 megawatts of clean fusion power by 2028, or pay financial penalties. So, maybe, nuclear fusion power is finally less than 10 years away!

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