Tammy Ma was about to board a plane when she got the call of a lifetime. The NIF is the world's largest and most energetic laser. Scientists have been trying to achieve a breakthrough in nuclear fusion for a long time.

Ma said he burst into tears and jumped up and down in the waiting area when he heard about the achievement.

For the first time on Earth, the NIF shot 192 laser beams at a tiny target filled with fuel.

In the early hours of December 5th, NIF shot 192 laser beams at a tiny target filled with fuel and achieved "fusion ignition" in a controlled setting. Nuclear fusion generated more energy than the laser energy used to kick off the reaction could. The way stars generate energy is recreated in the lab by Ma and her colleagues. Someday, that process could power our world with unlimited energy.

There is an explainer on nuclear fusion and the breakthrough this week. The Inertial Fusion Energy Institutional Initiative is led by Ma. Our conversation will show you more about her work and what's next for her.

The interview has been edited to make it clearer.

What do you think about your job at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory?

Let's be transparent. It's not like we're pulling new ideas out of the air because we have this ensemble of data from the past 10 years. How do we make the last set better? What design changes would you like to see?

We are working with the laser scientists to find the best laser pulse. Material scientists have to work with us to develop the materials for the targets. Our diagnostic instruments have to be set to capture the burst of neutrons when they come out. The fastest X-ray cameras in the world allow us to record what is happening in real time. It is a large team that brings all this together.

A portrait of Tammy Ma
Tammy Ma, a physicist and lead for the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory’s Inertial Fusion Energy Institutional Initiative.
Image: Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory

I'm trying to move towards the next step of fusion energy. How can we take advantage of this great discovery? We're here now.

What was it like to hear that your lab had accomplished something?

It was amazing because the NIF is doing experiments all the time. It was built on decades of work. I am very fortunate to be here at the moment. There have been giants that have come before. I don't know if it's sunk in yet that we've accomplished this. It is thrilling.

When will you try to get this done again?

We will try to repeat the shot and make improvements in the future. The quality of the targets is constantly being improved. The laser energy is going to be turned up in the future. We are doing new experiments frequently.

There are challenges that need to be overcome.

Many of the technologies that will support a fusion power plant in the future need to be built. Cheap targets that we generate at high volumes are very robust and good quality. Lasers can run at high rates. The NIF only shoots once or twice a day. It is thought that a fusion power plant would have to shoot 10 times a second or more. We have to find a way to speed things up. The challenge is large. We have to work with universities and academia too. The private sector is interested in what's happening. All of that expertise is needed to make it happen.