It’s a question that has been tantalizing scientists for almost a century: Can humans tap the same force that powers the stars? On Dec. 5, an experiment by scientists in California signaled yes. Researchers at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California produced a brief nuclear fusion reaction resulting in a net energy gain, or more energy created than was directed by lasers toward a fuel capsule to start the reaction. 

It took years of effort, but collaboration and innovation turned hope into reality. 

Why We Wrote This

Scientists see a path to abundant clean energy from nuclear fusion – in which atoms come together rather than split apart. A lot of people are having to bring their talents together, too, to move this hope closer to reality.

More advances are needed to bring nuclear fusion into practical use. Next steps for researchers and private sector companies include learning to heat the fuel more efficiently, and sustaining the reactions over time and at the scale of a power plant. 

For now, the experiment is a sign that persistence and collaboration can pay off after decades of effort.

“I hope the public will … realize that they shouldn’t be asking questions about how practical it is at the beginning, because first you have to know that it can be done,” says Paul Bellan, a plasma physicist at the California Institute of Technology. “Then you start making it practical.” 

It’s a question that has been tantalizing scientists for almost a century: Can humans tap the same force that powers the stars? On Dec. 5, an experiment by scientists in California signaled yes. Researchers at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) in California produced a brief nuclear fusion reaction resulting in a net energy gain, or more energy created than was used to start the reaction. 

It took years of effort, but collaboration and innovation turned hope into reality. 

At least for a fraction of a second. More advances are needed to bring nuclear fusion into practical use. And the work comes with controversy, since the research has military as well as civilian applications. But the potential benefit – a future with abundant and relatively clean energy – gives hope to many scientists and environmentalists alike. 

Why We Wrote This

Scientists see a path to abundant clean energy from nuclear fusion – in which atoms come together rather than split apart. A lot of people are having to bring their talents together, too, to move this hope closer to reality.

What is nuclear fusion?

Nuclear fusion is the energy that powers the sun and other stars – a process first theorized by British physicist Arthur Eddington in 1920. It occurs when two atoms combine, or fuse together, to make a heavier one. Fusion releases energy because the mass of the new singular nucleus is less than the mass of the two before, and the leftover mass becomes energy. 

When applied to energy production on Earth, fusion will be very different from the fission reactions used in nuclear power plants today. Fission involves splitting a nucleus into two smaller nuclei. Less energy is produced with nuclear fission, and the resulting waste is much more radioactive. Where fusion involves light gases (types of hydrogen), fission generally uses heavy elements like uranium.

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