The long quest for fusion energy is about to pass a milestone. Scientists at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California say they are ready to test a giant laser system.
The laser beams expect to start a nuclear reaction that could lead to practical production of energy with an infinite fuel source and no carbon waste.
The goal is to produce energy the same way the sun does - efficiently, cleanly and infinitely.
It is called fusion - and that is what these scientists at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California are trying to achieve.
Ed Moses directs the Lab's National Ignition Facility, or NIF. "Fusion energy is the long term solution," Moses explains. "It is infinite, essentially infinite fuel. And it has no carbon waste."
"Sun in a Bottle" is how science writer Charles Seife describes fusion. "Basically all life comes eventually from fusion, the fusion of the sun," he said. "And so if we could replicate this on earth, we've got the clean elemental power that powers everything on earth essentially."
Using a newly-completed $4 billion laser system that took 10 years to build, scientists at NIF say they are very close to producing controlled fusion. If successful, the experiment could be a giant step towards satisfying the world's increasing demands for energy. They say they expect to start experiments next month that they believe will lead to "ignition."
"When we talk about ignition, we talk about making a small sun on earth; getting thermonuclear burn in the laboratory in a controlled manner," Moses clarified.
That burn, or fusion, is what happens in the sun, stars, and in hydrogen bombs: atoms are merged together and fused at very high temperatures, producing enormous amounts of energy.
Scientists at the National Ignition Facility will focus the intense energy of 192 giant laser beams on a hydrogen-filled target the size of a pill, in order to fuse, or ignite, the nuclei of the hydrogen atoms.
"It will make energy as Einstein told us; the neutron will fly off and if we collect the energy that's coming out of that, we have fusion energy to use for electricity or a variety of other purposes," Moses said.
But Charles Seife cautions it will be important for the project to generate more energy than it uses. "But is this going to actually produce more energy than the laser consumes?" he questioned. "Almost certainly not. And in fact, if you press them, they hedge a little bit, maybe we'll get ignition, maybe we won't."
For now, the focus is on ignition. In the future, the scientists at NIF hope fusion will be a long term energy solution, with the goal of creating more power than they use.
"It is the silver bullet, Moses said. "Of course, there's a lot to do along the way."
Moses says he thinks pilot fusion power plants will be running within a dozen years, and he adds, soon after that, fusion power will be part of our lives.