The heart of a powerful fusion reactor has generated more energy than was put into it for the first time. Experts are cautioning that the breakthrough is still a long way from a safe, unlimited nuclear energy source.

Physicists at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California announced on Tuesday that they were able to fire a laser with 2 megajoules of energy into a tiny fuel pellet.

Caution is advised in interpreting the results. A net gain of energy was not produced by the entire reactor. The fusion reaction would have to use less energy from the electrical grid and more from the laser beams to be effective.

The nuclear fusion reactor core produces more energy than it consumes.

The loss of electricity to light is not accounted for by the new milestone.

The reaction takes place in a tiny fuel pellet inside the world's biggest laser and can only be repeated every six hours. The reaction is too inefficient for practical use.

"Net energy gain is a significant milestone, but to put it in perspective, it means fusion is now where Fermi put fission about eighty years ago," Ian Lowe said in an interview. There is a huge technical problem of maintaining a mass of plasma at a temperature of several million degrees to enable fusion. I haven't seen a schematic diagram of a fusion reactor that shows how it works.

The National Ignition Facility's fusion reactor uses 192 laser beams to focus laser light into a hot-spot the diameter of a human hair.

The National Ignition Facility's fusion reactor uses 192 laser beams to focus laser light into a hot-spot the diameter of a human hair. (Image credit: Science History Images/Alamy Stock Photo)

How fusion reactors work

The NIF's, which contain the hot plasma with lasers or particle beams, and the Joint European Torus (JET), which is based in the U.K., are both magnetic confinement reactor. The field at ITER will be twice as strong as the one on Earth.

There are different strategies for overcoming fusion's technical barriers. The goal of tokamaks is to keep the plasma burning for a long period of time. Despite edging closer, tokamaks haven't created a net energy gain.

The NIF reactor, which is used to test thermonuclear explosions for military purposes, produces bursts of energy by burning one tiny chunk of fuel after another. Scientists have yet to figure out how to replace the fuel in the form of pellets quickly enough to maintain a reaction for a long time.

Yves Martin is the deputy director of the Swiss Plasma Center at the cole polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne. The pellet has to be placed in a room which is nine meters (30 feet) across. It costs a lot of money to get the reaction going. It should go down to $1 or less.

A very expensive isotope

Tritium, a key component of fusion reactor fuel, is in short supply, posing a problem for the reactor. Once a common and unwanted byproduct of open air nuclear weapons tests and nuclear fission, tritium's 12.3 year half-life means that much of its existing stock is already on the way to being unusable.

Physicists propose breeding tritium inside nuclear reactor that captures stray neutrons. Plans to test tritium breeding at ITER had to be abandoned because of ballooning costs.

If the political reactor can be found and the engineering challenges are solved, the first viable fusion could come online as soon as 25 years from now. It's too late to keep global warming below the target by the year 2030.

Decision makers want clean energy from a plentiful resource. They spent a lot of money on fusion research but are not giving up.

Improvements to fusion technology have arrived in a steady stream. A trial of artificial intelligence to control the plasma inside a tokamak, a slew of records in power generation, plasma burn time, and reactor temperatures across multiple experiments, and the rewrite of a rule which could enable future reactor to generate twice as much power are some of the things that are Physicists insist that multiple strategies for a long-term solution to the climate crisis are necessary and that fusion will be a vital component of a future carbon-free energy system.

If we wanted to rely on renewable energy only, we would need an excess of installations to make up the difference. The base level is what we need to produce what we want. I won't put solar panels on my roof because I believe in fusion. We need to use things that are better than fossil fuels.