The reality of fusion power the same energy that powers the sun remains outside of our reach. Although scientists have figured out how to split atoms and attain nuclear reactions, they have yet to find an efficient way to fuse atoms. So far, techniques require more energy than what's produced.
But at Sandia labs, researchers are getting closer. Recent experiments led by plasma physicist Ryan McBride show that it's possible to reach a "break even" point, where the energy that goes into running a fusion reactor is equal to energy produced. That's a big step toward an alternative energy that produces emission-free energy without the nuclear waste.
The fusion method at Sandia is called magnetized inertial fusion. Doing it requires a system of coils at each end of a beryllium cylinder just under seven millimeters across. Inside the cylinder is a small amount of deuterium, which is an abundant molecule in the ocean made of hydrogen with an extra neutron.
Here's how the reactor works: First the two coils generate a magnetic field. A few milliseconds later, an accelerator called the Z machine fires a 25-million-ampere current. That current generates a magnetic field that crushes the cylinder in 100 billionths of a second. In that short space of time a laser fires at the cylinder, heating the deuterium gas inside and turning it into a plasma. The two coils at the end, meanwhile, are generating a magnetic field that contains the plasma to allow it to fuse.