For this story we go back to the 1950s. The U.S. was in the middle of the Cold War with Russia and each side was trying to outdo the other in military strength. Because of this the U.S was rushing to make a more powerful bomb.
This led to the first time that fusion was created by man. A nuclear bomb test in 1951 was the first fusion bomb test. It was followed up in 1952 by a larger scale bomb, which would later allow for the building of "practical" fusion weapons (by not using materials that would be hard to use in a real attack such as cryogenic hydrogen isotopes).
As funny as it sounds, sometimes terrible things can spawn good things, this was the case with fusion bombs, they led to interest in harnessing fusion energy as a power source. At this point it will probably be good to differentiate between fusion and fission.
Nuclear fission is the process people are most likely more familiar with. Current-day nuclear power plants run on fission. In this process uranium or plutonium is bombarded with neutrons in the hopes of eventually setting off a reaction that will cause the Uranium/Plutonium to split into smaller pieces. When this split occurs, a tremendous amount of energy is released and hence why nuclear fission power plants became somewhat popular.
Of course fission power plants have their problems, mostly having to do with the storage of the waste which will remain radioactive for a very long time to come (many thousands of years). This leads us to fusion. The fusion reaction is different than fission. Fusion is actually the fusing together (hence the name fusion) of two light nuclei (usually hydrogen or helium in the sun). Oddly enough when you fuse these smaller nuclei together, the new configuration needs much less energy than the old configuration, and thus there is a tremendous release of energy, far exceeding that of fission.
This is why we switched from fission bombs to fusion bombs: the release of energy was much greater, hence a larger boom for your buck so to speak. This also means that if you could control the fusion reaction (without making a boom) you could essentially solve the energy problems of the world.
What is even better is that fusion doesn't have the same difficulties as fission. For instance you wouldn't have to contain the waste of fusion energy for thousands of years, the core that you are using is the only radioactive part and this would only be dangerous for around 50 years (and it would then be a low level radiation hazard for another 100 years). This is a small amount of time (and a small amount of waste) compared to fission so this makes fusion even more attractive.
Of course, there is a catch. Fusion has proven exceedingly difficult to make happen. Sure, we got it to work uncontrollably in a bomb in the 1950s, but a self sustaining, break even fusion reactor has yet to be created. However after a long and arduous journey, we are inching ever so much closer to being able to create fusion power. In 2013, National Ignition Facility was able to hit a milestone by creating the first controlled fusion reaction that gave off more energy than it took in. This is a huge step toward a fusion future. However the reaction was not self-sustaining, which will be necessary in the future.
Lockheed Martin appears to be very optimistic and believes it will be able to produce a working prototype of a fusion power plant by 2017.
In any case there is a facility that is scheduled to come on line in 2019 called the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor. ITER is being run by the European Union, U.S., Russia and a few other countries (which is why it is over budget and behind its original schedule). ITER is intended to produce 500 megawatts of electricity, which will be an impressive feat if it reaches that goal, considering we have barely just broken the break- even mark.
In any case it will be wonderful if we can overcome the difficulties of creating fusion power. Imagine wiping out the problems of price variations in gasoline, greenhouse gas emissions, air pollution and even greatly reducing the amount of nuclear waste and the time that waste needs to be segregated. I hope we can all see that day soon!
Jeremie is a Wilmington resident and Clarkson University graduate student. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org