We are still a very long way from having fusion power the electric grid, never mind one power plant itself. The US project, while groundbreaking, only produced enough energy to boil about 2.5 gallons of water, Tony Roulstone, a fusion expert from the University of Cambridge’s Department of Engineering, told CNN.
That may not seem like much, but the experiment is still hugely significant because scientists demonstrated that they can actually create more energy than they started with. While there’s many more steps until this can be commercially viable, that is a major hurdle to cross with nuclear fusion, experts say.
“This is very important because from an energy perspective, it can’t be an energy source if you’re not getting out more energy than you’re putting in,” Julio Friedmann, chief scientist at Carbon Direct and a former chief energy technologist at Lawrence Livermore, told CNN on Monday. “Prior breakthroughs have been important but it’s not the same thing as generating energy that could one day be used on a larger scale.”
Past fusion experiments including one in the United Kingdom have generated more energy but have not had nearly as big of an energy gain. For instance, earlier this year, UK scientists generated a record-setting 59 megajoules of energy – about 20 times as the US-based project. Even so, the UK project only showed an energy gain of less than one megajoule.
There’s still many years and a long way to go to make the project commercially viable. Neither the US or UK-based projects “have the hardware and steps in place to convert fusion neutrons to electricity,” Anne White, head of MIT’s Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering, told CNN.
But Roulstone pointed out that big ambitious nuclear energy projects have to start somewhere: In 1942, scientists in Chicago ran the first fission nuclear reactor for just 5 minutes in its first run; 15 years later, the first US-based nuclear power plant went online in Pennsylvania.