We need the power of fusion | National exam

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Men work inside an HL-2M Tokamak nuclear fusion reactor, dubbed the “artificial sun,” under construction in Chengdu, Sichuan province, China on June 5, 2019. (Liu Haiyun / Chengdu Economic Daily via Reuters)

Why we need fusion energy – and why it’s great that free enterprise is rising to the challenge.

Dur In the summer of 1985, I was part of a team of engineers at Los Alamos National Lab working on the first design of a fusion reactor based on the then very advanced concept of the spherical tokamak (ST). At a group lunch towards the end of the effort, our team leader, Robert Krakowski, reflected philosophically.

“You know,” Krakowski said, “when the fusion power is finally developed, it won’t be in a place like Los Alamos or Livermore. It’ll be done by a few weirdos working in a garage.

We all laughed at it, knowing full well how the formidable difficulties of developing Fusion Power put such a feat beyond the capabilities of garage inventors. But in recent years, the trend has shifted sharply towards validating Krakowski’s prophecy. Well-funded entrepreneurial efforts around the world have started to make fusion energy a reality. Indeed, many of them are now beyond official government agendas. At this rate, there’s a good chance the first controlled thermonuclear fusion reactors will be fired before the end of this decade – if not by crazies in a garage, then maybe by a team of start-up engineers working in a warehouse.

In his book, The Star Builders: nuclear fusion and the race to power the planet, Arthur Turrell reports on part of this activity. In his account, however, he despises it – apparently viewing it as a parallel spectacle to the flagship programs of the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) and the National Ignition Facility (NIF). It is a mistake.

Planning for the ITER program began in the 1980s and by the summer of 1985 it was already considered a “scandal” by many people working on the front lines of the fusion program. Fusion had made steady progress between the 1950s and 1980s, driven by stiff competition between American, European, Soviet and Japanese programs. But then the bureaucrats overseeing these efforts collectively agreed that this competition was putting too much pressure on everyone and decided to consolidate each program into one united global effort called ITER.

Progress in the development of fusion energy was then brought to a screeching halt as no new machines beyond the mid-1980s technology – namely the US TFTR and the European JET devices – were built. Almost all advanced research on the non-tokamak concept has been closed, and funds that should have been spent on building the generation of tokamaks that could have taken us beyond near TFTR equilibrium results and JETs finally obtained in the early 90s were hijacked to send high-level bureaucrats to an endless series of summits in Vienna and Kyoto and other posh places around the world. The design of ITER was frozen in a gargantuan concept of the early 1980s (pre-ST, high temperature pre-superconductor); the program proceeded at a snail’s pace, with no consensus reached for two decades on where to place the machine. At the time of this writing, the machine is still not built. If it goes according to the current schedule, it will not be ignited until 2025 – and will not attempt to achieve ignition until 2035.

ITER is a tokamak – a device that uses a donut-shaped magnetic field to attempt to confine diffuse super hot ionized gas, or plasma, in a steady state. In contrast to this, the Livermore Lab NIF is an inertial containment system that detonates a pellet of fusion fuel with hundreds of high-energy lasers, hitting it from all sides to compress it under ultra-dense, ultra-dense conditions. hot for the briefest moment of time. During this time, the pellet will ignite and explode like a miniature hydrogen bomb. So this is a very useful tool for exploring the physics of H bombs, which is really what it was built for. Construction of the NIF began in 1997 and was completed in 2009. The device finally achieved fusion ignition this month. Yet despite this significant achievement, the incredibly complex football stadium-sized NIF looks nothing like a convenient fusion powerhouse, and offers no realistic path to one.

Turrell sees these great scientific bogs as the royal road to fusion energy, ignoring much more promising and quicker private efforts, such as the British Tokamak Energy (which is building a high temperature ST superconductor), the Canadian General Fusion, the Australian HB11 and US Commonwealth Fusion Systems, Tri Alpha Energy, Helion Energy, EMCC, CT Fusion, Lawrenceville Plasma Physics, Helicity Space, Lockheed Martin and others. What Krakowski could see in the future in 1985, Turrell cannot see while it is happening all around him today. Essentially, the barn is missing.

Turrell is also wrong in his reason why we need a merger. According to Turrell, we need fusion to stop global warming.

It’s just nonsense. First, put aside the question of whether stopping carbon emissions should be a societal priority: if someone really wanted to decarbonize power generation, they could do it now, using gas reactors. nuclear fission. The French have already done it. The Malthusian movement – alias the “Greens” – strongly opposes it, because nuclear power threatens to solve a problem they need. As soon as fusion energy becomes practical, they will oppose it too, for exactly the same reason, as the Sierra Club already does.

No, the reason we need fusion is to destroy the Malthusian belief system, which in my opinion is the preeminent threat to human civilization today. If one accepts the idea that resources are finite, then all nations are fundamentally enemies, and the only question is who is going to kill whom to claim what is available. Basically, this was the source of the great catastrophes of the twentieth century. This could cause a lot worse in the 21st. This mindset is however wrong. We are not threatened by too many people. We are threatened by people who think there are too many people.

The power of fusion can save us by totally refuting the limited resources thesis. The amount of deuterium fusion fuel in a gallon of water contains as much energy as that produced by burning 350 gallons of gasoline. It is all water on earth, fresh or salt. One gallon of Mars water contains deuterium with an energy content of 2,000 gallons of gasoline. Other planets or asteroids can offer more. So what we’re talking about with fusion is unlimited energy. With enough energy, you can do it all. In all of the history of human civilization, we have not used a single kilogram of iron or aluminum. We have just degraded certain materials from more convenient to less convenient shapes. With enough energy, we can rearrange it, recycling it faster and faster from one form to another. We will never lack for anything.

Plus, fusion doesn’t just represent unlimited energy – it’s a new kind of energy that we could do things with that we just can’t do now. With fusion energy, for example, we could create fusion rockets, which could reach speeds of up to 10% of the speed of light, thus opening our way to the stars.

The fundamental question is: are resources limited or unlimited? If they are limited, then every person is every other person’s enemy, every nation is every other nation’s enemy, every newborn baby is a threat, and the key role of government must be to suppress numbers, human activities and freedoms. . But if resources are truly the unlimited result of human creative activity, then every person is potentially the friend of every other person, every nation can ultimately be the friend of every other nation, every newborn baby is a blessing, and the key role of government must be to protect human freedom at all costs.

That’s why we need fusion energy, and why it’s great that free enterprise is rising to the challenge.


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