Omar Hurricane, a researcher at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, says that for the first time, they've produced significant amounts of fusion by zapping a target with their laser. "We've gotten more energy out of the fusion fuel than we put into the fusion fuel," he says.

Strictly speaking, while more energy came from fusion than went into the hydrogen fuel, only about 1 percent of the laser's energy ever reached the fuel. Useful levels of fusion are still a long way off. "They didn't get more fusion power out than they put in with the laser," says Steve Cowley, the head of a huge fusion experiment in the U.K. called the Joint European Torus, or JET.

The laser is known as the National Ignition Facility, or NIF. Constructed at a cost of more than $3 billion, it consists of 192 beams that take up the length of three football fields. For a brief moment, the beams can focus 500 trillion watts of power — more power than is being used in that same time across the entire United States — onto a target about the width of a No. 2 pencil.