There’s a big problem, however. Despite being able to do fusion, it’s not commercially viable, possibly for decades. This isn’t going to save us from fossil fuels in time like renewable power can this decade. Fusing Hydrogen into Helium takes a lot of energy, a lot of technology, and the attempts are limited when they need to be continuous to work for a power plant that boils water for steam turbines.
“”It is a big scientific step,” says Ryan McBride, a nuclear engineer at the University of Michigan. But, McBride adds, that does not mean that NIF itself is producing power. For one thing, he says, the lasers require more than 300 megajoules worth of electricity to produce around 2 megajoules of ultraviolet laser light. In other words, even if the energy from the fusion reactions exceeds the energy from the lasers, it’s still only around one percent of the total energy used.
Moreover, it would take many capsules exploding over and over to produce enough energy to feed the power grid. “You’d have to do this many, many times a second,” McBride says. NIF can currently do around one laser “shot” a week.”
“It’s not very easy to see how you scale this into a power reactor quickly,” he says.
By then most climate experts believe the world will have to have already made drastic cuts to carbon emissions to avoid the worst effects of climate change. To limit warming to 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of the century, the world must nearly halve its carbon output by 2030 — a far shorter timescale than what’s needed to develop fusion.
Betti agrees that the timeline to building a fusion plant is “definitely decades”. But, he adds, that could change. “There’s always a possibility of breakthrough,” he says. And the new NIF results could help spur that breakthrough forward. “You’re going to get more people to look into this form of fusion, to see whether we can turn it into an energy-making system.””