WASHINGTON – TIME‘s cover story (November 2, 2015) has this tantalizing title: “Unlimited Energy. For Everyone. Forever. FUSION, It might actually work this time”.
Yes, the long article is about “fusion”, the Holy Grail for all those who seek a way to produce and harness abundant, cheap, and emission free energy. However, this is still a distant dream. Indeed, the inside joke among those who have been working on nuclear fusion is that “fusion is about 30 years away, and it will always be 30 years away”.
Therefore, fusion is something theoretically possible, but so removed from practical reality that it is in fact only a fantasy. Indeed, even if we take it literally, “we shall have nuclear fusion 30 years from now” does not mean “never”. But it is a very long time away for a world that is seeking practical, commercially viable alternatives to fossil energy –today.
The global energy picture
When it comes to energy, we know where we are. Contrary to even recent predictions, we still have plenty of oil and gas, not to mention enormous coal reserves. In fact, thanks to the US-led “hydraulic fracturing” revolution, now we can tap into large oil and gas shale reserves that we believed to be economically non viable until very recently.
However, energy from fossil fuels is still too expensive for many developing countries. Hundreds of millions of people in Africa and Asia lack electricity and modern transportation systems simply because they cannot afford them.
Besides, fossil fuels extraction, processing and consumption contributes to environmental degradation, while their emissions increase the amounts of greenhouse gases that cause global warming.
Those who really worry about climate change (they seem to be a majority) declared that, because of global warming, we have to curb the use of fossil fuels now, while switching to emission free renewable energy.
The intentions are good. However, the problem with this approach is that it is not cost-effective, at least not yet. At its current level of technological development renewable energy (mostly wind and solar) is still too expensive and not reliable. In many cases, it is adopted only because of imposed legal mandates. This may make environmentalists happy, but it is bad economics.
How would fusion change all this? Well, if indeed fusion would move from quasi-science fiction to commercially viable reality, its impact would be equivalent to the invention of the electric light bulb.
Fusion is what takes place in the sun, at extremely high temperatures. Imagine that we would learn how to provoke fusion while properly containing it, and use the tremendous amount of power released by it. This would be a real revolution. As TIME put it: “Unlimited Energy. For Everyone. Forever.”
Cheap, no radiations
And the beauty of all this is that fusion is cheap. The raw material for fusion is super abundant hydrogen. And fusion is much more powerful than fission (this is what happens in nuclear power plants), without the disadvantage of creating nuclear waste, or radiations. Besides, just like nuclear power, but unlike wind or solar, fusion would generate a constant supply of energy.
Imagine the consequence of this energy revolution. We could power almost anything at a fraction of today’s cost. Forget about drilling oil wells, transporting and then refining crude oil. Forget about coal mines. Forget about gas wells, and pipelines.
Energy for developing countries
We could give clean, affordable energy to all poor countries, so that they would be able to kick-start their economic development without the huge up front costs associated with the construction of power generation plants, and the additional expenses related to fueling them and running them.
A game changer?
Well, has there been any breakthrough? Have we removed the “we shall have fusion, 30 years from now” insurmountable barrier? Not quite. In this respect the article disappoints a bit. We are still not “there”. However –and here is the good news– we have entered a new dimension that may be indeed the prelude to a real game changer.
Here is the thing. Until recently fusion research was the domain of publicly funded researchers. And this was and is a systemic weakness. The allocation of (relatively scarce) public funds devoted to fusion research and experimentation is governed by too many rules, procedures and endless bureaucratic protocols.
And it seems that risk averse program managers dominate this process. As a result, everybody is doing pretty much the same stuff. New frontiers are not explored. Hardly any progress registered.
Mega international projects, such as ITER (International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor) in the South of France, are years behind schedule and billions over budget. ITER started in 2008. It is now estimated that the reactor will be operational in 2027. In the meantime, projected costs ballooned from $ 5 billion to $ 20 billion.
But something has changed. And the change is that private capital is now bankrolling small and generally unknown start-ups. And these start-ups (like Tri Alpha, Helion Energy and General Fusion) are experimenting new technology approaches that seem to be more promising.
Now, this renewed enthusiasm about fusion is no guarantee of success. But it indicates both optimism and impatience among dedicated scientists, and beyond. Obviously there are many people, including funders, who believe that the science has been properly addressed, and now the trick is to move to the next step, by making the machines that will make fusion possible and commercially viable.
Again, let’s stress that optimism and the availability of venture capital is no indication of ultimate success. However, many more smart people focusing on fusion may increase the likelihood of faster progress.
One again, the very idea of fusion seems to be the classic example of something that is “too good to be true”, and therefore impossible. Still we may, just may, get there. And may be sooner than we think.