Infinite Clean Energy Just Decades Away? Plans Laid for the First Fusion Reactor


A fusion reactor in a Canadian museum. Photo credit: David R. Carrol via Flickr/CC BY

Ah, nuclear fusion--that near-mythical idea that's only mentioned in whispers; that has long seemed doomed to linger on the sidelines of the "serious" energy debate. Okay, so I'm sort of overstating its outsider status (universities and governments have been researching the technology for decades), but it's true that solar, wind, nuclear fission, and fossil fuels dominate the conversation. There are plenty of reasons for that, but there's also a good reason to start taking fusion a bit more seriously: An international coalition of researchers has laid out plans to generate 500 million watts of fusion power in 500 seconds by 2020.And the formation of this group has jump-started the dialogue on fusion again, surely to the delight of energy questers everywhere.

Case in point: One of my best friends is a mechanical engineer who studied at the University of California at San Diego, which has a leading fusion research program. Every time I start talking clean energy, without exception, he'll bring up fusion.

"It's closer than you think," he's been telling me for years. Inevitably, I'll say something like the following: That may be so, but our policymakers don't see it that way, and vested interests in fossil fuels certainly don't, so there's not adequate funding for research. Plus, it's still really uncertain ...

But he holds firm. And why? Why put so much stock in this technology? I'll let the New York Times answer that one:

Harnessing nuclear fusion, the energy that powers the sun and the stars, has been a goal of physicists worldwide since the 1950s. It is essentially inexhaustible and it can be created using hydrogen isotopes -- chemical cousins of hydrogen, like deuterium -- that can readily be extracted from seawater.

Fusion energy is created by fusing two atomic nuclei, in the process converting mass to energy, which appears as heat. The heat, as in conventional nuclear fission reactors, turns water into steam, which drives turbines to generate electricity, or is used to produce fuels for transportation or other uses. Fusion energy generates zero greenhouse gases. It offers no chance of a catastrophic accident. It can be available to all nations, relying only on the Earth's oceans. When commercialized, it will transform the world's energy supply.

Yeah, so there's that. And now there's some definite movement on the fusion front -- projections put the the first fusion reactor 20 years and $30 billion away. And yes, that would mean a near-limitless clean energy source could be just a few decades away. Which would literally change the very way the world functions in every way imaginable (and would surely introduce frightening new challenges).

And that international coalition, which includes the EU, Japan, Russia, the United States, South Korea, India, and China, is getting some very real backing from some very serious folks. The US, of course, isn't really one of them -- our current investment, as with other cleantech projects, is rather minuscule.

Now, I'm no expert on nuclear fusion. I know very little about the technology. I know it's subject to plenty of hyperbole from techno-optimists. But what I do know is that this is precisely the sort of thing that we should be pursuing instead of, say, building more drones to bomb the hills in Afghanistan. Fusion research should have a place alongside more immediately available cleantech deployment. It's time, and long has been, for the U.S. to seriously step up its game in clean energy research (I know a certain Dot Earth writer will agree with me here). Imagine, for a second, if we scrapped the $60 billion oil subsidies we dole out to the most profitable industry on earth -- and sent it towards fusion research. Who knows what we might turn up ...

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