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Germany just turned on a new experimental fusion reactor

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Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Today, scientists began the first tests of an ambitious new fusion reactor in Greifswald, Germany. Dubbed W7-X, the new reactor is based on the Stellerator design, in contrast to the Tokamak reactors that dominate much fusion research. It's still unclear whether the new design will have an advantage in producing a workable fusion reaction, but the W7-X represents a major step forward in researching that question. The experiment conducted today was relatively simple, heating hydrogen particles into a suspended plasma state, but it represents a crucial first step in the facility's ambitious research plans.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel pressed the button to initiate the symbolic first test. "As an industrial nation we want to show that an affordable, safe, reliable and sustainable power supply is possible, without any loss of economic competitiveness," Merkel said in a statement to the press. "The advantages of fusion energy are obvious."

Many scientists remain skeptical about the possibilities for fusion reactors as a viable power source. Still, the German project is just one of many experimental reactors attempting to make fusion work, including the US National Ignition Facility, the EU-funded ITER facility, and a Skunkworks project announced by Lockheed Martin in 2014.