By Adin Blumofe
Net energy positive fusion is currently being heralded as one of the most significant discoveries of the century. However, expectations need to be tempered—but only slightly. Typically, when atoms interact, it usually involves the outermost electrons. The outer electrons are redistributed, resulting in both atoms possessing lower internal energies. However, fusion is different, as it concerns the nuclei of the atoms. When protons get close enough to one another, the Strong Force––a type of interaction between subatomic particles––takes over, and the protons bond, changing the element and releasing a tremendous amount of energy. Consequently, scientists have long theorized how to exploit this phenomenon to produce virtually unlimited clean energy.
Humanity has yet to enjoy the potential benefits because of one major hurdle: efficiently inducing fusion. Fusion only transpires when protons get close enough that the Strong Force takes over. Yet, while a proton is approaching the nucleus, it is being repulsed with exponentially greater strength due to both particles being positively charged. As anyone who has ever tried to hold the positively charged magnetic poles of two magnets together would know, it is beyond strenuous. For protons to overcome that same force, it requires imbuing the particles with enough energy to push past repulsion. Until now, scientists have been able to run fusion reactions without using more power than they get out of the system. The only exception to this was in the 1950s, but the means were not practical for serving as a power source. The American army set off a fissile nuclear bomb to get enough energy to trigger a fusion reaction creating an even larger bomb. Needless to say, no sustainable energy plan can ever involve the words “step one involves setting off a nuclear bomb.” What is revolutionary nowadays is that scientists at the National Ignition Facility at California’s Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory produced a fusion reaction in a controlled manner that required less energy than was input.
However extraordinary the development is, it still only serves as little more than a proof of concept than anything else. Science still has many technical obstacles that need to be overcome before this technology can change the world. The first hurdle is improving the efficiency of fusion. A recent experiment only gave 1.5 times as much energy as was required to trigger the reaction. In absolute terms, it provided 300000 kJ, which is around enough to boil two kettles for tea.
Another problem is finding enough source material. The laboratory produces fusion by fusing deuterium with tritium. Deuterium is found in Heavy Water; Heavy Water constitutes 1/1000 of all water, so it is a non-issue. Tritium, however, is much more complex. Currently, the main supply of the substance is distributed in the world’s nuclear weapons and only measures around 25 kg if all of it is collected. Fusion for one reactor is estimated to consume 1 kg annually. Tritium is produced via fission, meaning most viable fusion plans will require a fission reaction next to it. There will need to be city-sized power stations to produce the energy for any major metropolis. As there is not enough space inside a city, transmission on the scale of hundreds of miles will be necessary. Each of these technological obstacles must be dealt with before mass implementation.
Factoring in all the challenges, we should consider unlimited fusion power as something now about fifty years away. The Biden administration recently committed millions to develop the technology as part of the green transition. According to Bloomberg, Biden’s administration said they want nuclear fusion by 2032, but that is impossible. If America goes carbon neutral in the next few decades, it will be from sources other than fusion.
Despite all the future work necessary to make fusion a viable power source, it is still worth looking towards the long term because the results will be defining moments in human civilization. Energy is the capacity to do work. The industrial revolution fundamentally was a human multiplier. We learned how to leverage the energy in coal and oil to do the labor of many multiples of people. Full-scale nuclear fusion will provide access to near-infinite energy. Infinite energy means infinite possibilities.. Any project that is theoretically possible but not practically feasible because of energy costs can be implemented. Carbon capture can be a realistic response to climate change, instead of the trick and pony show the laws of thermodynamics currently make it. Desalinization can proliferate clean water. Metals can be smelted for practically free. There would need to be a base cost to maintain the infrastructure, but the ratio between dollars spent to kiloJoules produced would be virtually zero. If fusion were to come to pass, countries with this technology would price out all others. The secondary and tertiary effects are endless; the world will never be the same.