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For the last 25 years, researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have been quietly creating and studying a piece of the sun, barely half a mile from the Charles River between Boston and Cambridge. Every so often, for merely two seconds at a time, a specialized reactor owned by MIT uses huge amounts of electricity—enough to power all of the city of Cambridge—to heat gases inside a protected chamber to near 100 million °C. The researchers’ goal is to master nuclear fusion, the process that gives the sun all its energy.

Wielding the power of an artificial star on Earth to generate electricity has great advantages over our current sources of energy: it produces no carbon, sulfur, or nitrogen emissions; we have enough of the fuel used in the process—istopes of hydrogen—in the world’s oceans to run fusion power plants for billions of years; it is energy dense, so it takes up just a fraction of the space of, say, a solar farm producing the same amount of energy; it can be turned on whenever energy is needed (unlike wind and solar power, which are intermittent); and there is no possibility of a meltdown like the one that occurred in Fukushima in Japan in 2011. It has some downsides: it needs water for cooling (a problem at a time when water is becoming a scarce resource), and it will produce low-level radioactive waste (though it will be less dangerous than the highly radioactive waste produced in current nuclear power plants).

It mostly sounds too good to be true, and so far it has remained so.

These MIT researchers are the latest in a long line of scientists who have worked on the fusion problem since the 1930s. Over that time, governments around the world have poured billions of dollars into the endeavor. If the history of fusion science were to be summed up in one word, it would be “hubris.” Many great minds working in various decades have declared that fusion would be achieved in 10 to 20 years—then had to admit failure. Those failings have been so constant it’s become a joke: Nuclear fusion is the energy of the future and will always be.

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