Nuclear Fusion Could Give Us Unlimited Clean Energy… But It’s Underfunded
Imagine for just a moment that an alien civilization has been watching our world from afar, trying to figure out if there’s intelligent life. Sure, they’d detect the abnormal levels of oxygen in the atmosphere suggesting that a lot of organic respiration was keeping the ordinarily volatile gas from breaking down. They would note the large quantities of water vapor and maybe even see just how much of our planet was covered with oceans. It would be very obvious that Earth was alive, but how smart are those living things they’d ask? Our hypothetical aliens would get a definitive answer when we finally turned on the lights in our cities. Ever since the dawn of industrialization, we’ve been consumed by the need to efficiently generate power to run our factories, to illuminate our cities and homes so you don’t have to break out the board games or read by candlelight to unwind after a long day.
But the problem we face is that providing all the energy we need isn’t easy, and with growing demand, the task keeps getting harder and harder. We’re hitting the point of diminishing returns with fossil fuels, not to mention all the damage burning them causes to the environment and our health. Solar plants, wind, and tidal power are all great, but they have their limitations, and the infrastructures needed to run primarily off the energy they produce is still being refined. Nuclear power certainly fits the bill, but the way we’re doing it, through controlled fission, has the nasty side effect of creating an extremely dangerous waste product that can poison the environment for a very, very long time. We can recycle nuclear waste for a little while but not nearly for as long as it will be dangerous. Surely there’s a better way.
Well the good news is that there is. The bad news is that it’s still not ready for prime time and lackluster funding for basic research keeps delaying it, along with the laws of physics. I’m talking about nuclear fusion. Yes, what science fiction spacecraft and cities use to produce cheap power that easily scales up to produce all the energy the story’s protagonists and antagonists ever need with no radioactive waste. For the last 60 years engineers tried to make it happen because we actually do have a fundamental understanding of how it should work: we combine two isotopes of hydrogen into helium, a process extremely similar to what happens in every star in the universe. We just have to do a couple of key things a little differently.
Whereas stars use gravity and heat to trigger the reaction, we have to use a lot more heat and magnetism since, as I’m sure you noticed, we don’t have the mass of the Sun to contain the heat and pressure required. In a nuclear warhead, we use fission bombs to very inefficiently create a bit of helium by momentarily creating the proper conditions contained by the warhead’s big, heavy “jacket” for just a fraction of a millisecond. Since a commercial fusion reaction probably shouldn’t function like a bomb, the plan is using the heat of 100 million degree plasma compressed by powerful magnets built into the walls of the reaction chamber. However, containing that plasma proved to be the major snag because we can’t keep it flowing long enough to see any net gain in the reaction, and the tools to help us do that are slow to arrive in no small part because governments aren’t taking this research seriously.
Of course it’s not that the fusion community is without sin. When the first prototypes were being built in the 1970s, the designers over-promised and dramatically under-delivered. The challenges in containing a turbulent flow of plasma caught them by surprise and it took decades of slow and steady trial and error to refine reactor chambers, lasers, and magnets to get even close to a viable shot at seeing a net gain from fusion. Unfortunately, those letdowns and delays have resulted in dramatically cut budgets which mean that the technology slowly trickles down and experiments are kept rather conservative not to risk being passed over for being too ambitious. Fusion research today could walk, or even start jogging a little, but it’s kept to an infuriatingly slow crawl with demonstrator after demonstrator. The major international effort now, ITER, should’ve been a net gain reactor, but with the excess of caution we see today, it will be a big ignition prototype.
In the meantime, new configurations with a real shot at getting us closer to viable commercial reactors like the Stellarator, have to wait their turn. Even worse, they’ll have to prove they’re worthy contenders after a conservative to a fault international demonstrator shows no net gain. Two decades into a new millennium, physicists and engineers are still paying for the sins of the very first research teams which drastically slows down progress. Billions of public dollars are being spent on projects which have no hope of getting us significantly closer to fusion, new designs are dismissed out of hand, and a successful project means very incremental adjustment to existing tools that still aren’t getting us closer to net gain. One would think that a solution to our energy woes for the next few thousand years would get at least slightly higher priority and encourage a little more chutzpah in proposals.
Still, we are incrementally getting closer and closer. We know what went so wrong in our first experiments, we understand how to fix it, and we have a lot of experience in machining precision parts to build the designs with real shots at containing plasma for long enough to start producing energy from fusion, not just consuming it to kick start the process. But what we lack is a vision and proper funding that appreciates how science actually works. For bureaucrats, seeing experiments fail is a waste of time and money they can’t justify. For scientists, failed experiments that nevertheless edge closer to the ultimate goal is encouraging progress because if they can’t make it work on the first try, they’ll find all the ways it won’t until they arrive at what will by process of elimination. And this is exactly what’s happening with fusion. We just need to kick the funding and ambition up a notch.