Fusion Hoopla

A reason that the breakthrough is causing such hoopla is that it implicitly promises that we could use fusion to run the world in almost its current form. Photograph courtesy Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory

Without the expertise to fully appreciate the science, the hoopla can be overlooked too easily. McKibben’s comment helps clarify:

The Fusion Breakthrough Suggests That Maybe Someday We’ll Have a Second Sun

In the meantime, we need to use the sun we’ve already got.

On Tuesday, the Department of Energy is expected to announce a breakthrough in fusion energy: according to early reports, scientists at the government’s Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, in California, have succeeded for the first time in making their complex and expensive machinery produce more power than it uses, if only for an instant. It’s a breakthrough of great significance—in essence, the researchers are learning to build a second sun. And it was greeted with the requisite hosannas—the Washington Post described it as a “holy grail,” a “major milestone in the decades-long, multibillion-dollar quest to develop a technology that provides unlimited, cheap, clean power.”

That it comes with equally requisite caveats does not diminish the glory of the achievement, but they’re important, too. As a fusion expert at the University of Cambridge, in England, told CNN on Monday, “This result is miles away from actual energy gain required for the production of electricity. Therefore, we can say (it) is a success of the science but a long way from providing useful energy.” Among other things, producing this reaction required one of the largest lasers in the world, and the reaction creates neutrons that can destroy the very equipment required to produce it. As the Post put it, “Building devices that are large enough to create fusion power at scale” would “require materials that are extraordinarily difficult to produce.” It is therefore still “at least a decade—maybe decades—away from commercial use.”

Happily, we have a bridge technology that might get us through those decades: it’s the first sun, the one that hangs in the sky above Lawrence Livermore and the rest of the planet. We know how to capture its rays on photovoltaic panels, and we know how to take advantage of the fact that it differentially heats the earth, creating breeze that we can capture in giant turbines. The advantage of this technology is that we’ve long known how to build it—I’m writing these words on a computer powered by a panel on my roof that was installed in 2001—and, indeed, that we can now do so cheaply. During the past few years, the cost of renewable energy dropped below the price of fossil fuels…

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