Using nuclear fusion – star energy – to power the world's dishwashers, TVs and servers has long been a twinkling in the misty eyes of physicists, but it inched closer to reality this week as the American National Ignition Facility (strap line: "Bringing Star Power To Earth") struck a deal with the UK company AWE and Oxford-based Rutherford Appleton Laboratory.
The National Ignition facility (NIF) in California – at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory – has been using lasers to force together the isotopes and create the fusion needed for the process to work. Scientists there believe they are within years of achieving the goal in the lab and project that the concept could eventually become a commercially viable energy source.
NIF & Photon Science is a principal directorate at the Livermore Lab, and operates the world's largest and most energetic laser. NIF's goal, according to its mission statement, is "achieving nuclear fusion and energy gain in the laboratory for the first time — in essence, creating a miniature star on Earth".
The Rutherford Appleton laboratory – owned and operated by the Science and Technology Facilities Council – is based in Oxford, and describes its mission as "keeping the UK at the forefront of international science and tackling some of the most significant challenges facing society such as meeting our future energy needs, monitoring and understanding climate change, and global security."
Requiring only pellets composed of hydrogen isotopes and producing helium and neutrons, nuclear fusion would provide nuclear power without many of the downsides of nuclear fission – the process that powers our nuclear power plants today – and sweep away many of the current geopolitical energy problems around fossil fuel supplies.
David Willetts, the UK's science minister told the BBC: "I think that what's going on both in the UK and in the US shows that we are now making significant progress on this technology," he said. "It can't any longer be dismissed as something on the far distant horizon." ®