How does free, unlimited electricity sound?

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A recent nuclear fusion breakthrough could be a game-changer

As we have noted, rising heating bills are putting the squeeze on consumers earlier than usual as cold, nasty weather moves in. But scientists report a breakthrough they say could result in free, unlimited electricity in the not-too-distant future.

Scientists at the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory in California, after decades of research, reported that earlier this month they were able to produce more energy from a nuclear fusion reaction than the energy required to trigger the reaction.

That simple step has been the Holy Grail among energy researchers who have tried for years to make nuclear fusion an efficient form of energy. Unlike nuclear fission, which powers today’s nuclear power plants and produces highly radioactive waste, fusion produces almost no waste.

Nuclear fission produces energy by splitting uranium atoms. Nuclear fusion produces energy by combining, or "fusing," hydrogen atoms.

According to Mark Herrmann, a program director at the lab, scientists used 2.05 megajoules of energy from a laser and produced 3.15 megajoules, a net gain of energy that could have boiled water. The amount of megajoules – a unit of energy – used in the experiment is comparable to about 2.5 gallons of gasoline.

The next challenge

If replicated on a huge scale, scientists said the technology could be used to power the world’s electric grids, producing unlimited, clean energy. That’s the next challenge.

Scientists say the achievement is something to celebrate but for consumers, its practical application is years away. Think in terms of decades before it’s widely used.

Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm says the successful use of fusion ignition to create a net gain in energy means the future is literally a little brighter.

“Ignition allows us to replicate for the first time certain conditions that are found only in the stars and the sun,’’ Granholm said at a news conference. “This milestone moves us one significant step closer to the possibility of zero-carbon abundant fusion energy powering our society.’’

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