have reportedly made a significant breakthrough in the race to build a self-sustaining nuclear fusion reactor.

Nuclear fusion is often cited as a potential 'miracle cure' for Earth's electricity needs. Unlike current fission reactors, which use rare unstable elements to split atoms and release large amounts of energy, fusion produces even more energy by forcing light and abundant elements together.

This is the same process which powers our Sun - and the hope is that it could lead to a new era of cheap, abundant power on Earth.

But achieving a self-sustaining fusion reaction in which more energy is produced than put in to the system has proven incredibly difficult.

Scientists have worked for decades towards various prototypes, and while progress has been made the dream of a genuine fusion reactor remains elusive.

Until now - maybe. Researchers at the $3.5 billion National Ignition Facility (NIF) in the US appear to have generated more energy in a fusion reaction than was absorbed by the fuel for the first time.

The BBC reports that this would be the first time the milestone had been achieved anywhere in the world.

The NIF system users 192 beams from the world's most powerful laser to heat and compress small amounts of hydrogen. The ultimate aim is to sustain the reaction for long enough that the fuel produces more energy than is poured into it by the lasers.

While this 'ignition' point has not been reached, the milestone is still extremely significant. It would mean than NIF is closer than ever to a genuine fusion reactor.

The lab has not publicly announced details of the test - and indeed the BBC says only that it "understands" the results were achieved. It is still possible that further study will take the shine off the potential breakthrough.

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