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Today, researchers at a laboratory in California claim they've made a breakthrough in producing energy through nuclear fusion. Fusion powers the sun and stars, and scientists dream of harnessing it here on Earth to solve our energy problems.

NPR's Geoff Brumfiel reports on this latest attempt, which uses a giant laser.

GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: Walk through the front door of the world's biggest laser facility and you'll be impressed. There's 192 beams, they take up the length of three football fields. And for a brief moment, they can focus more power than is being used across the entire United States onto a target the width of a number two pencil.

Omar Hurricane is a researcher using the laser. He's at Lawrence Livermore Lab and he goes to work not through those big front doors but through an underground service tunnel.

OMAR HURRICANE: That long walk down the tunnel gives me a sense of the scale. And actually that's also, in that tunnel where, you know, I start to feel some of the anxieties and kind of give the facility a pat on the wall for good luck.

BRUMFIEL: Hurricane has been feeling a lot of anxiety lately. This facility, it's called the National Ignition Facility, was built to produce nuclear fusion. Fusion is a process where hydrogen atoms are squeezed together until they fuse into helium atoms. When that happens, a lot of energy is released. But fusing hydrogen is tough. Hurricane says each time they try, it feels like they're taking a test.

HURRICANE: Of course, you want to score real well. You think you've learned the material but you just have to see how you do.

BRUMFIEL: Until now, this multi-billion dollar laser has been getting a fat F. For all its power, it just couldn't get the hydrogen to fuse and researchers didn't know why.

HURRICANE: There were some things that weren't understood maybe as well as was originally believed.

BRUMFIEL: This is a little surprising because researchers like Hurricane achieved fusion decades ago, in a very different way.

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UNIDENTIFIED MAN: In less than a minute, you will see the most powerful explosion ever witnessed by human eyes.

BRUMFIEL: In 1952, the U.S. tested the first hydrogen bomb. The bomb made lots of fusion energy but it only worked by making it all at once. It vaporized the island it was tested on. The idea of using lasers is to create a much smaller, more manageable reaction. But squeezing hydrogen is hard.

HURRICANE: I think anyone - even kids have had this experience - if you try squeezing balloons or a tennis ball or something, you can squeeze it a little. But if you squeeze it a lot it will squirt out through your fingers.

BRUMFIEL: Today in the journal Nature, Hurricane and his colleagues report that they've finally figured out how to squeeze hydrogen atoms just right. They've got fusion, but overall they still produced just a tiny fraction of the energy they used.

STEVE COWLEY: They didn't get more fusion power out than they put in with the laser.

BRUMFIEL: Steve Cowley heads another huge fusion experiment in the Britain called JET.

COWLEY: But I think it's still a very important step forward. They reached fusion conditions. They made some fusion happen, and that's not been done before.

BRUMFIEL: At least, not with lasers. There's still a long way to go. But these findings have given Omar Hurricane hope. Hope that with more practice they can bring fusion closer to being the endless energy source everyone wants it to be.

Geoff Brumfiel, NPR News.

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