Nothing like a major breakthrough in fusion-power research to enliven a Friday afternoon:

Scientists at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory reported Thursday they have taken a major step toward harnessing the forces that power the sun in an effort to create unlimited energy on Earth.

In experiments at the lab's National Ignition Facility, the scientists successfully fired an array of 192 laser beams at a helium-filled target no larger than a BB shot and instantly heated it to 6 million degrees Fahrenheit. The gas vanished in a tiny explosion.

The scientists said that result marked the most important advance yet in more than 10 years of work at the $3.5 billion facility.

The main purpose of this laser array will be to create miniature thermonuclear reactions that can be used to test the safety and reliability of the U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile. But, of course, there's that other elusive goal—figuring out how to create safe fusion reactions that could, in theory, create unlimited amounts of clean energy. Then again, that's been the dream for going on 50 years now.

Speaking of fusion, New Scientist recently took a nice look at "the next big thing in nuclear fusion research"—the $10 billion ITER facility in southern France, set to be built by 2018. The piece outlines some of the considerable obstacles to fusion power, though the best part is that ITER will rely on coconuts—tons and tons of coconuts—to make a key substance in the reactor's vacuum pumps that will scoop up waste helium. For whatever reason, charcoal made from coconut shells seems to work best—particularly 2002-vintage Indonesian coconuts. Good thing they have a stockpile.

(Photo credit: Lawrence Livermore National Lab)