Fusion energy, if you look too close… you’ll go blind – miracle technology or miserable mirage?

By David Salt

Technology to the rescue!

Our profligate use of carbon-intense energy has enabled humanity to soar on an ever-growing wave of economic growth. It has also tipped the Earth system into a different way of behaving (welcome to the Anthropocene).

Climate scientists have been warning us of the consequences of this for roughly 50 years. Unfortunately, by and large, our political leaders have ignored these warnings through a mix of denial, obfuscation and delay. They have done this because the short-term pain society would experience as we transformed our energy systems comes with a high political cost; so high it’s easier just to kick the can down the road. What this has translated to has often been the claim that tomorrow’s technology will solve tomorrow’s problem (brought about by today’s inaction) so let’s keep burning oil like there’s no tomorrow.

Only thing is, tomorrow’s problem came down to roost this year. India had historic heatwaves, Pakistan unprecedented floods, the US was hit by killer wildfires, Europe copped devastating heatwaves, floods and drought (ditto China)… and the list goes on. It wasn’t a bad year, it was a catastrophic one in terms of climate disruption, and it’s only the entrée to what’s ahead – welcome to the Anthropocene.

Carbon emissions, largely associated with the way we use energy, lies at the heart of this disruption. So, it is with great enthusiasm that headlines everywhere in the dying days of this disastrous year have been hailing the recent breakthrough in ‘clean’ fusion energy (eg, Breakthrough in nuclear fusion could mean ‘near-limitless energy’).

The fusion breakthrough

Fusion, as most people know, is the process that powers our sun. It involves fusing together hydrogen atoms to release vast quantities of energy, but it only happens under conditions of extreme heat and pressure, conditions that exist in stars.

Scientists have been working on recreating these conditions by focusing high power lasers on hydrogen atoms held close together within intense magnetic fields. They’ve generated fusion energy on several occasions but, up until recently, it’s taken more energy to produce the fusion reaction than has been produced by that reaction.

The breakthrough that has just been announced was made by the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California. It produced a fusion reaction that gave out more energy than was required to produce it. The lasers used to create the fusion used around 2 million joules of energy but the reaction emitted some 3 million joules; the first time a controlled fusion reaction has produced a net surplus of energy.

How cool is that? Humans are now capable of fusing atoms in temperatures and pressures 10 times higher than those at the centre of the Sun! Stand aside Prometheus, we’ll take it from here.

The fusion joke

But before you go ordering your own personal stellar power plant, keep in mind this technology has a few hurdles still to jump.

For starters, this ‘breakthrough’ is really a technical ‘proof of concept’ that fusion can be done in a controlled manner. The lasers may have used less energy than the fusion they produced, but the facility surrounding the lasers and the magnetic fields consumed around 300 million joules of energy to do the experiment. So, even in this experimental set up, the fusion reaction needs to generate 100 times more energy just to break even. (As it is, the net energy it generated in this experiment is about enough to boil a kettle, and could only be sustained for 100 trillionths of a second.)

Upscaling fusion to be a commercial reality has so many technical challenges that the running joke in the world of physics is that controlled fusion energy will take 50 years before it’s a reality. What’s more, scientists have been working on fusion for more than 50 years, yet that forecast of ‘it’s still 50 years away’ has never really changed.

Though, following this latest breakthrough, the Director of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Kim Budil, said on Radio National that she believed that operational fusion power plants might be possible in a mere two decades.

I think she’s dreaming – it’s the willfully naïve dream of the techno-optimist. Maybe the fabulous science being done at her lab will truly provide a guide for how fusion power plants might be built but the staggering – and I mean stupendously enormous – levels of resources (money, highly skilled people, land, infrastructure and, above all, political will) needed to build a fusion plant makes them projects bigger than any space race, and beyond the capacity of any single nation state. And how well have our big multi-state technological adventures gone so far? They exist, think International Space Station, massive radio telescopes and particle research facilities. However, none of these go even close to the resources that would be required by commercial fusion power.

As is often the case, a scientist, often a physicist, will make a breakthrough uncovering new realms of potential and say ‘problem solved’ (in this case, our energy needs will be met); claims which are then amplified and distorted by the media and political leaders to suit whatever ideological barrow they are pushing.

The fusion dream

The thing is, even if fusion power was a reality in 20 years, is it a solution we should be prioritizing?

Climate disruption is with us today and already tearing apart the fabric of our society.

We don’t have 20 years; we need to transition away from carbon-intensive energy now. We’ve literally wasted the last 20 years, and now the wheels are starting to come off project humanity.

To prioritize the ultra-expensive, highly risky idea of fusion energy as our salvation is really just one more form of climate denialism – we don’t need to change our ways because tomorrow’s technology will save us, so keep on consuming and polluting.

The irony here is that the real solution lies in natural fusion energy. That massive fusion reactor in the sky we call the Sun radiates a limitless supply of energy down on us every day. We’re starting to capture a tiny portion of that energy with photovoltaics (and wind turbines, wind is ultimately the result of solar radiation warming the atmosphere) but there needs to a massive switch from fossil fuels to renewables immediately. This is not happening.

Single fusion power plants are expected to cost between $20-65 billion dollars each and current research expenditures in the US alone are well over $500 million pa. Imagine what could be achieved if this level of funding was channeled into upscaling existing, relatively inexpensive and reliable solar technologies available today.

Or we could just continue to stare into the incandescent vision of endless ‘clean’ controlled fusion energy coming to our powerpoints sometime very soon. Just remember what happens when you stare into the Sun for too long.

Banner image: Image by 이룬 from Pixabay

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