Can nuclear fusion help fuel the world?

Sushmitha Ramakrishnan

The US Department of Energy will announce a major breakthrough in nuclear fusion technology this week, department spokespeople said Sunday. The milestone announcement is expected from Washington on Tuesday. The announcement was made shortly after the Financial Times reported scientists at the California-based Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) successfully generated a “net energy gain” using nuclear fusion in a lab for the first time.

For decades, scientists have pumped more energy into experimental fusion reactors than the total new energy created in the process. This setback has made nuclear fission — not fusion — the default preference in the pursuit of limitless, zero-carbon power, despite its health and safety risks. Here’s what you need to know about nuclear fusion.

The ‘future of energy’

If you work in atomic energy, you’ve probably heard the joke: Generating electricity from nuclear fusion is always just 30 years away. But despite its complexity, scientists working on the technology say it’s worth the trouble. That’s because the nuclear fusion reaction has a higher energy potential than all other energy sources we know. It can release nearly 4 million times more energy than chemical reactions like burning coal, oil or gas, and four times more than nuclear fission, the process currently used in all nuclear power plants around the world.

Discovered in the early 20th century, fusion is seen as the future of energy by many policymakers, especially in Europe. But is nuclear fusion really a “greener” alternative to what we’re doing now, and how far have we come in generating electricity from this process?…