Has the Holy Grail of clean energy been found?

The Holy Grail of energy?
The Holy Grail of energy?   

For many, nuclear fusion is the Holy Grail of energy, offering the possibility of limitless clean energy through harnessing the very same nuclear reaction that keeps our Sun burning.

While the potential of fusion is huge, it is a process that requires vast resources and effort, with the International Energy Agency stating that, "extreme temperatures and pressure are needed to initiate and sustain the fusion reaction, making it challenging."

Fusion is different from the fission power that is used in our nuclear power stations in that energy is generated when atoms are brought together rather than blown apart, which causes radiation.

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British Columbia-based General Fusion are hoping that the technology and methods they are developing will herald a new era in nuclear fusion. They have developed what they describe as a "Magnetized Target Fusion system."

According to the company's website, the system makes use of a sphere which is filled with molten lead-lithium. This is pumped to create a vortex, into which 'magnetically confined plasma' -- an electrically charged gas -- is injected. Pistons surrounding the sphere are used to drive a wave of pressure into its center, "compressing the plasma to fusion conditions."

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"Fusion is done… [in] two ways," Michel Laberge, founder and chief scientist of General Fusion, told CNBC's Sustainable Energy. "Usually… you make a magnetic field and that hold[s] the plasma – which is the hot gas – together, or you have no magnetic field and you crush it very fast with lasers."

"What we want to do is something in between: we want to make a plasma, a hot gas, with the magnetic field, and then crush the thing with the magnetic field, and because [with] the magnetic field the heat will not escape so fast… that will work a lot better," Laberge added.

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Currently, General Fusion is developing what they describe as 'full scale subsystems' that will demonstrate that they can meet performance targets. In the future, they are hoping to build a full scale prototype which they say will be, "designed for single pulse testing, demonstrating full net energy gain on each pulse, a world first."

"Humanity… needs a source of energy for the future, and we cannot keep on burning fossil fuels," Laberge said. "Fusion will be powering humanity in the future," he added.

Clarification: this article has been updated since first publication to reflect the fact that the reaction that keeps our Sun burning is a nuclear one.