If you're betting that we will one day rely on clean nuclear fusion for our growing energy needs, your odds are getting a lot better thanks to a laser-based technique called Inertial Confinement Fusion (ICF).
For many people, nuclear fusion is the ultimate alternative to dirty, planet-destroying fossil fuels and tsunami-vulnerable fission plants. The fact that we can look to the sun to see fusion in action makes it seem so easy, safe, and wholesome. There's just one small problem - stars can only shine if they're really, really big because you need lots of gravity to hold the churning mass of hydrogen and helium together tightly enough for fusion to take place.
Because we can't rely on gravity to squeeze fusion fuel together down here on Earth, physicists have been working on a number of alternatives. For the past half century or so most of the focus has been on using magnetic fields to confine gas-like plasmas of super hot hydrogen. Unfortunately, plasmas are slippery and holding onto them for long is very, very difficult. So difficult, in fact, that the approach has been the butt of a longstanding joke that goes something like this, "Practical plasma fusion is only twenty years away, and always will be."
It's funny, 'cause it's true. When I was a physics student in the 1980's, the plasma physicists I was working for told me we'd have magnetic fusion reactors in twenty years, and they are saying the same thing today. (Some are even saying it may take thirty years, essentially indicating that the field is making anti-progress towards its lofty goal.)
In the meantime, an entirely different approach appears to be moving ahead at leaps and bounds. The National Ignition Facility (NIF) seems to be on track to burn a bit of fusion fuel within the year, and produce megawatts of power for the electrical grid in about ten years, using Inertial Confinement Fusion.
Most ICF designs rely on heating a capsule of fuel with a whole mess of high power lasers. That causes the outer shell of the capsule to explode and compress a tiny bit of fuel inside. Once compressed, the hot fuel tends to rapidly expand, but before it can do that it has to overcome inertia, as described by Newton's first law. That doesn't give us a lot of time, but it's enough to create a minuscule version of the sun, even without massive amounts of gravity.
All you need to do at that point is harness the energy from the tiny, fleeting sun to heat water and use the resulting steam to turn a few turbines. Yeah, yeah, it's clearly not so easy. Still 60 years of work has proven magnetically confined fusion to be durn near impossible. That's why I'd consider doubling down on the ICF folks, while taking my chips off the magnetic fusion hand.
Of course, the cynic in me says that in ten years, we could still be saying that practical ICF is ten, or even twenty, years away. That would result in another sad, and unfunny, joke.
Personally, I think we're on the right track this time. We may be laughing about ICF in a decade, but I'm pretty sure we'll be laughing all the way to the bank.