In 1984, an EU-funded prototype nuclear fusion reactor called JET was officially opened by Queen Lizzy, and has been happily fusion-ing away ever since, even setting a world record for fusion energy back in 1997. The old gal's not done yet, however, and following an upgrade a few years ago, the scientists in charge want to have another go at a world record shot.
Nuclear fusion (as opposed to fission, the type of nuclear power we're all familiar with) is the same type of process that powers the sun, and basically involves making new atoms, rather than splitting old ones, to generate power. In order to make fusion happen, you need a hell of a lot of heat: during one of its full-power runs, JET gets up to about 200 million degrees Centigrade.
Heating the reactor up to that level means that you have to pump a lot of energy in to get some back out; so much, in fact, that nuclear fusion hasn't reached the 'breakeven' point of producing more energy than is put in. However, the JET head honchos are hoping that since the upgrades to their reactor that have happened over the last decade, a full-power run might just now hit breakeven, or a little better.
Even if it does hit breakeven, nuclear fusion still has a long way to go -- a viable reactor needs to generate around 15-30 times the power it puts in. But, the nuclear fusion community are hoping that a succesful test will pave the way for future projects -- like a funky new reactor about to open in France -- to make nuclear fusion a reality. [BBC]
Image credit: JET