All the energy the human race could possibly use is bottled up in hydrogen isotopes — if we could just figure out an efficient way to merge them together with nuclear fusion. Now, researchers at Sandia National Laboratories say their fusion experiments are getting close to a key break-even point, where the energy going into running a reactor would be equal to the energy produced.

Nuclear fusion has long been a holy grail for alternative technology advocates. This kind of reaction, which powers active stars, could be a safer, more powerful energy source than nuclear fission, without the toxic waste.

According to Discovery News, Sandia uses an accelerator to shoot a magnetic field thorough a tiny cylinder containing the hydrogen isotope deuterium. (In language suggesting a James Bond villain, it calls the device “the Z machine.”) As the cylinder is compressed, a laser heats the deuterium, turning it into a plasma, which is then able to fuse.

The latest experiments tested the cylinder to make sure it wouldn’t be too damaged by the compression, which means the deuterium should be able to fuse successfully.

New tests coming in 2013 and beyond will help determine whether the Z machine can function using a mix of deuterium and a radioactive hydrogen isotope known as tritium. Fusion between deuterium and tritium is the easiest reaction of this kind to achieve, making them the likely fuel for first-generation fusion reactors.

Sandia, operated by a subsidiary of Lockheed Martin Corp. under a contract from the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration, is one of the leading institutions researching “hot fusion.”

Reaching a break-even in fusion doesn’t automatically mean the technology will be commercially viable, but the Sandia research suggests the possibility of more practical high-yield fusion, where energy output is at least 1,000 times the input.

Photo of Sandia researcher Ryan McBride with the “Z machine” courtesy Sandia National Laboratories