(WASHINGTON) -- The Department of Energy on Tuesday announced a scientific breakthrough in nuclear fusion at a national lab in California, marking a major step toward developing a new, sustainable form of energy that releases virtually no carbon dioxide or other types of air pollution.
Scientists at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California successfully generated a fusion reaction between two hydrogen atoms and maintained that reaction in a controlled setting, marking the potential to use such reactions to generate huge amounts of energy without burning fuels.
The announcement could mark a major step in creating a form of energy that would not release the gases that are warming the planet and contributing to climate change, but is still decades away from being ready for large-scale application.
"This is a great day," Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm said at a Washington news conference, adding that the achievement "will go down in the history books."
"Today, we tell the world that America has achieved a tremendous scientific breakthrough. When that happened it was because we invested in our national labs and we invested in fundamental research, and tomorrow will continue for a future that is powered, in part by fusion energy," she said.
"This milestone moves us one significant step closer to the possibility of zero carbon abundant fusion energy powering our society," Granholm said. "If we can advance fusion energy, we could use it to produce electricity, transportation, fuels, power, heavy industry so much more. It would be like adding a power drill to our toolbox and building a clean energy economy."
The reaction itself was done on Dec. 5 at the National Ignition Facility, the world's largest laser system at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. The lab's director, Kim Budil, joked that the lab's acronym, LLNL, stands for "lasers, lasers, nothing but lasers."
The experiment pointed 192 lasers at a container holding a small pellet of fuel the size of a peppercorn, specifically made up of deuterium and tritium – both isotopes of hydrogen.
Those lasers generated 2.05 megajoules of energy within that container that hit the fuel pellet and ignited the reaction, briefly heating it to over 3 million degrees Celsius -- creating the conditions of a star -- and generating 3.15 megajoules of energy.
That increase is why the experiment is being called such a success because by generating more energy than they put in it proves the potential that this kind of reaction could be a source of power someday, if they can scale it up and make it much more efficient outside of a lab setting.
The lasers themselves required 300 megajoules to power, which Budil said is in part because the lasers are based on older technology. But they believe it can be made more efficient to potentially create much more power than was represented by the lab experiment with decades more research and significant private sector investment.
"This demonstrates it can be done. That threshold being crossed allows them to start working on better lasers, more efficient lasers, on better containment capsules, etc. The things that net are necessary to allow it to be modularized and taken to commercial scale," Granholm said.
Granholm and other officials emphasized that the announcement is also a benefit to US national security. The reaction created by the scientists at the California lab is a controlled version of the same reaction that takes place in nuclear weapons without the mass destruction, so this could allow the government to research deterrents for nuclear weapons without the need for real world weapons testing.
The idea is frequently represented in science fiction coming to life, said Paul Dabbar, a distinguished visiting fellow at Columbia University and former Department of Energy undersecretary for science, who oversaw the national labs in his role at the department. He said fusion power has been featured in films like "Star Trek: Into Darkness," which filmed at the lab announcing the new development, and "Iron Man" who uses a form of fusion power in the Arc Reactor that keeps him alive.
"What was just accomplished was a goal of science that can hopefully lead to having the ultimate power source, nature's power source, on Earth, which is a contained fusion reaction," Dabbar told ABC News.
Dabbar said nuclear fusion is essentially harnessing the power of the sun, or at least the same power that creates stars. He said the basic physics of the reaction has been understood for decades but scientists haven't been able to keep the reaction going because it requires a tremendous amount of heat and pressure to maintain.
"If we could bring a star down to earth, right. You've got a bunch of stars, basically controlled stars in buildings around the Earth. And we're taking the most abundant element in the universe and converted into energy, just like the sun but in boxes here. And no environmental impact and we have literally unlimited energy based on the amount of hydrogen there is," he said.
Dabbar said that while generating and controlling this reaction was the hardest step, there's still a lot of work to do to figure out how to contain and maintain it outside a lab setting, including designing a power plant that can handle that amount of heat and energy created by the reaction and still last at least 10 or 20 years.
But he said the advantages are huge. A fusion power plant could produce a lot of power from one facility and would emit no carbon, no air pollution, and generate very little waste compared to the nuclear power plants in use today. It's also fueled by hydrogen, which is incredibly abundant.
"It literally has all the advantages of many of the alternatives it with none of the disadvantages of all the alternatives. And so it could be you know, if a power plant can be made it would be incredibly positive," Dabbar said.