Alan Zendell, December 14, 2022
Last week’s watershed achievement by scientists at the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory in California could ultimately save our planet. It was a major step forward in the search for the holy grail of physics: unlimited, cheap, clean energy. That means no carbon footprint, no dangerous nuclear waste, and no need for uranium mines. It’s not just a fantasy; it’s real, but assuming the Livermore breakthrough means the realization of the dream of commercially viable fusion generators is like believing a baby taking its first steps is guaranteed to grow up to be an Olympic track star.
Scientists have understood the basic theory of nuclear fusion for a century. Fusion means forcing small atoms to fuse together into larger ones, releasing huge amounts of energy as a byproduct. But nothing in nature is free, and producing a fusion reaction requires a huge investment of energy to trigger the process. The key is whether the amount of energy produced by fusion exceeds the amount needed to sustain its production. That’s what happened for the first time at Livermore on December 5th.
Asserting that fusion could save life on Earth is not an exaggeration. It would make fossil fuels like coal and oil obsolete and irrelevant politically and diplomatically. Fifty years ago, the middle eastern oil-rich nations attempted to take the rest of the world hostage by controlling the flow and price of oil. In 2022, a major part of Russian President Putin’s calculation before invading Ukraine was that Europe’s dependence on Russian oil would undermine support for defending Ukraine. Control of some of the largest oil reserves on earth also played significant roles in the Iran-Iraq war and the first Gulf war that followed Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait.
Take oil out of the equation and none of those wars need have occurred. Equally important, if scientists had proved the viability of getting energy from fusion during the Manhattan Project at the same time they proved that nuclear fission could result in a super-weapon, the world would have switched to fusion power in time to avert much of the effect of climate change. Climate cycles are a natural part of a planet’s evolution, and they have repeated many times since Earth’s creation. Humans didn’t cause the current crisis of global warming, but our use of fossil fuels and fertilizers greatly accelerated it. Fusion power could have averted much of that acceleration, and current technology like carbon-eating vegetation might freeze the process in its tracks in the future.
If you’re wondering how this is different from what is commonly known as nuclear energy, they’re like night and day. While the energy from fusion results from combining atoms into larger ones, nuclear fission is about splitting very large radioactive atoms into smaller ones and emitting huge amounts of radiation along with heat. An uncontrolled fission reaction is an atomic bomb. Controlled ones enable us to produce energy from nuclear power plants, the essential term being “controlled.”
Many of us recall the horror of Chernobyl an Threer Mile Island, and the fighting in Ukraine around Europe’s largest nuclear plant at Zaporizhzhia, renewed those fears. But even without potential nuclear disasters, fission-driven plants are problematic: they produce huge amounts of radioactive waste, some of which has half lives of thousands of years, and they depend on large untapped deposits of uranium. The countries that possess most of the world’s uranium reserves are Kazakhstan, Canada, South Africa, Brazil, China, Ukraine, Tanzania, Mongolia, Uzbekistan, and Russia. The United States is notably missing from the list, but fortunately, Canada’s reserves are second only to Kazakhstan’s, and the first four countries on the list have well over half of the world’s known total. As the demand for energy grows, the geopolitical implications of these numbers are enormous.
Fusion power could relieve us of those stresses, but lest we get carried away, the same scientists who are celebrating their recent success warn that a commercially viable fusion generator could be thirty years away, and they won’t be in general use until the last decades of this century. Still, if we survive the next few decades, think of what the future might look like. Imagine a world-wide power grid fueled by the hydrogen in water. A fusion generator could use hydrogen isotopes deuterium and tritium to meet almost all of our future energy needs.
Remember how clear the air was during the COVID lockdown? Even cleaner air could be the norm with fusion, with corresponding reductions in the incidence and seriousness of asthma and other respiratory illnesses. Acid rain would be largely a thing of the past, and imagine the stabilizing effect on our economy of fixed, known energy costs independent of weather, politics, and international disputes. And no more concerns about melting ice caps and rising sea levels. It sounds like a pretty bright future.