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Scientists report major breakthrough in nuclear fusion energy

Lukasz Larsson Warzecha/Getty Images

Scientists recently confirmed that they achieved a significant breakthrough in nuclear fusion.

The results of the breakthrough were published last week in three peer-reviewed journals. The experiments occurred at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory's (LLNL's) National Ignition Facility (NIF) in California last year.

Nuclear fusion reactions are what power the sun and other stars. In a fusion reaction, two atoms collide with enough force that they fuse together to form a different atom. This process releases large amounts of energy as a by-product.

According to Discovery Magazine, nuclear fusion has been considered the “holy grail” of energy research almost since its existence was first theorized in the 1920s by English physicist Arthur Eddington.

For decades, scientists have attempted to harness energy from fusion in machines on Earth. Successful fusion reactors would be among the cleanest, safest, and most sustainable energy sources possible, explains ITER, an international nuclear fusion research and engineering project.

This latest breakthrough may be the most significant step yet towards human application of nuclear fusion. Data from this experiment — and its continuous follow-ups — will help researchers further streamline the fusion process and explore nuclear fusion as a real option for electricity generation, reports Newsweek.

What makes this experiment so significant is that researchers were able to achieve ignition: the point at which a nuclear fusion reaction becomes self-sustaining. Ignition is a fundamental step towards humanity’s ability to use fusion to generate electricity.

This experiment “was a major scientific advance in fusion research, which establishes that fusion ignition in the lab is possible at NIF," said Omar Hurricane, chief scientist for LLNL's inertial confinement fusion program, in a statement.

“It is extremely exciting to have an ‘existence proof’ of ignition in the lab,” Hurricane said. “We’re operating in a regime that no researchers have accessed since the end of nuclear testing, and it’s an incredible opportunity to expand our knowledge as we continue to make progress.”

The breakthrough is a result of years of research and the work of countless people. More than 1,000 authors are included in one of the academic papers “to recognize and acknowledge the many individuals who have worked over many decades to enable this significant advance.”

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