Nuclear Fusion- God's little joke on humanity?
Big news. Maybe the most important news of the year. Scientists have succeeded in producing a nuclear fusion reaction that resulted in a net energy gain, something that they've been chasing for decades. What does this mean? Why does it matter? And when can I get one of Doc Brown's Mr. Fusion devices to power my Delorean?
Several decades ago I took a college geology course called Earth's Resources. In it I learned the basic truths about where all of our energy and other materials come from. I had assumed as a child that you turn on the switch and magical electricity comes from..... somewhere. Through this course I learned two disturbing truths:
- Almost all of our energy is produced from exhaustible resources. They can't last forever and we will eventually run out. This especially applies to fossil fuels, which were created millions of years ago and are no longer being replaced. As civilization itself depended on these things NOT running out, that was a big realization for me.
- Most of the things that we get our energy from have dangerous side effects. Nuclear energy, which was the rage back then, produces toxic radioactive byproducts that have to be stored and contained for centuries. Coal, petroleum, and natural gas give off pollutants that clog our air, and add carbon gasses to our atmosphere, leading to the greenhouse effect. Climate change has been predicted since the late 19th century, and the evidence continues to pile up that our planet is heating up at an alarming rate.
Many years since that troublesome realization, not much has changed. Proven oil reserves could run out in about 50 years, probably sooner if consumption keeps growing, or perhaps later if new drilling technologies can unlock more reserves. But even before that, climate change looms as an existential threat. Climate is always changing, geologists and anthropologists have proven, but this time the change could be so substantial and rapid that our ability to adapt will be insufficient. Entire nations of people could be wiped out and new homes needed for millions of climate refugees. Food and water resources might be challenged worldwide, and no one knows exactly how it will all play out.
So we've known for many decades that our fossil fuel dependence, rewarding as it has been, is causing big problems for the environment. Renewable energy sources such as solar, wind, and hydropower have come a long way, but they are not yet seen as realistic replacements for the fossil fuels that make up 80% of the world's energy sources. Global populations are growing and energy consumption patterns in less-developed nations are expanding. For societies to survive in some recognizable way, we need an energy source that can generate reliably large quantities of electric power, and also one that can be portable to use in transportation vehicles like cars, trucks, airplanes, and ships.
For a while, nuclear fission was seen as a realistic alternative, at least for centralized power plants, and it has helped to provide economically viable energy sources. But nuclear fission has several big issues that will keep it from being a long-term, large-scale replacement for fossil fuels. For starters, there is a limited supply of uranium ore, enough to last perhaps 50-100 years at current levels. But the bigger problem is the toxic quality of the nuclear waste that comes from reactors, paired with the dangers of nuclear materials being used by terrorists or just simply melting down and poisoning everybody in the event of coolant loss.
That leaves us with just one energy alternative to replace fossil fuels- nuclear fusion. While fission gets energy from the splitting of atoms, fusion gets its energy from fusing them together. Scientists have been working on fusion for decades, with little success. The sun gets its energy from fusion, and recreating the conditions necessary for a controlled, sustainable reaction has been a challenge. The breakthrough at the National Ignition Facility in California in 2022 represents the most promising hint yet that fusion may still be feasible as a long-term solution.
Fusion research for the past two decades has focused on giant machines called tokamaks that use powerful magnetic fields to confine superhot plasma. The most promising of these experiments is an international effort- ITER, currently under construction in France. But results aren't anticipated there until 2035. Fusion is seen as the holy grail of energy because the materials to fuel it are plentiful and the waste issues are minimal. (No carbon emissions and no long-lived toxic waste by-products).
It's almost as if God has played a cruel joke on humanity. There was this magic substance under the ground that we all discovered in the 19th and 20th centuries that transformed the planet. It provided jobs, energy, wealth, and a wide assortment of economic possibilities. Being good explorers and inventors, we used that magic substance and built a civilization out of it, only to find out later that it came with a price. Using it too much will heat up the planet, perhaps to unlivable conditions. We are now so addicted to it that going back to the way things were before 1800 seems impossible.
But instead of a cruel joke, perhaps we can see this as a challenge. The magic, easy energy sources from plants and animals that died millions of years ago were only meant to be a jump start to get our civilization going- they weren't meant to last forever. There has to be another way out of this mess. The challenge of the 21st century is twofold:
1- Find a new energy source that is sustainable, reliable, clean, and economical to power everything and
2- Find ways to recapture carbon from the atmosphere and maximize renewable energy sources to minimize the impact of climate change while the transition is underway.
Never before in history have we had more scientists and more scientific research available to us on a number of projects. It's an exciting time to be alive, but we need to make sure we're working on the right problems. To me, fusion should be at or near the top. If we took just 10% of all the money used for weapons of war and devoted it to fusion research, perhaps we'd have more results quicker than 2035. As I've written earlier, things like the Webb telescope and Covid vaccine show that we can produce amazing things when we put our best minds on it.
Cross your fingers fellow Earthlings. A lot is riding on this.