For most of my life I’ve heard of nuclear fusion as the ‘holy grail’ that could solve most of our energy problems, freeing us from our dependency of oil and fossil fuels. Nuclear fission is the messy method employed in bombs and current reactors that split heavy atoms like Plutonium or Uranium, and end up with lots of dangerous “mutant goo” that lasts thousands of years; whereas fusion is the process favored by Mother Nature to light up stars in space, that merges the lightest atoms in the periodic table (Hydrogen) and turn them into Helium, releasing far more energy than fission and producing only a small amount of small-lived radioactive waste.
Fusion is the key to Star Trek, baby!
There’s only a tiny problem: Since stars tend to be ginormously heavy, and we haven’t figured out the secret of Gravity yet, scientists have been tried to overcome this by heating up hydrogen atoms into temperatures even hotter than the sun itself, with hopes of creating and sustaining a chain reaction that will generate more energy than what it was used to start the reaction. This is the promise I’ve been hearing since I was a child —I’m turning 50 next year, dear reader— and in all this time the promise of fusion has remained on the horizon: within our sight but unattainable, like the sun it tries to mimic.
This Tuesday the US Department of Energy announced on Twitter “a major breakthrough” achieved by scientists working at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California on December 5th. Using a method that to a geeky layman like myself sounds a lot like what Doctor Otto Octavius used in Spiderman 2, the team of scientists fired up an array of 192 powerful lasers into a BB-sized fuel pellet of deuterium and tritium (heavy isotopes of hydrogen), and for the first time they obtained more energy than what they initially put into the experiment.
In a brief moment lasting less than 100 trillionths of a second, 2.05 megajoules of energy — roughly the equivalent of a pound of TNT — bombarded the hydrogen pellet. Out flowed a flood of neutron particles — the product of fusion — which carried about 3 megajoules of energy, a factor of 1.5 in energy gain.
This crossed the threshold that laser fusion scientists call ignition, the dividing line where the energy generated by fusion equals the energy of the incoming lasers that start the reaction.
“You see one diagnostic and you think maybe that’s not real and then you start to see more and more diagnostics rolling in, pointing to the same thing,” said Annie Kritcher, a physicist at Livermore who described reviewing the data after the experiment. “It’s a great feeling.”
3 megajoules of energy, according to BBC science journalist Eme Stallard, is just the equivalent of what you’d need to boil 15 to 20 kettles of water (what a British way of explaining things to the public! But since the Gringos insist on using football fields as a unit of measure, I’ll allow it) so it may not seem like a lot, but it is still a quantum leap of progress compared to the results the Livermore team were getting back in 2014 ─the equivalent of what a 60-watt bulb consumes in less than 5 minutes.
So, does that mean nuclear fusion plants will finally cross the threshold between science fiction and science reality? Well… not exactly. Even though everyone who’s been on the record discussing on this story (whether directly involved in the experiment or not) keep praising it as an incredible milestone, the scientists keep insisting fusion is still at a highly experimental stage, and the Livermore method (which is in the process of being replicated in other labs) is nowhere near ready to be scaled into an industrial stage, which would require far more efficient and faster lasers ─Kenneth Chang in his column for The New York Times explains how the 2.05 megajoules of energy fired upon the fuel pellet don’t take into account the 300 megajoules taken from the electric grid which were needed to generate the laser pulse itself. Bummer.
The silver lining in this new announcement ─if you can call it that─ is that instead of telling us nuclear fusion is fifty years in the horizon, scientists can confidently predict it is “just a few decades” away. Double Bummer.
Here’s the thing: These experiments take up so long because they are difficult to prepare and cost BILLIONS of dollars, and so far only governments are picking up the tab. The Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory is not even focusing on investigating revolutionary forms of energy; they are more interested in (you guessed it) designing new weapons ─triple Bummer!
So here is my humble suggestion to all those Gen-Zers would-be activists out there from and old vinegared Gen-Xer: Stop it with the damn art-defiling climate protests that serve no-one and only make you look dumb; instead go into the office headquarters of Exxon, Shell, BP and all the major oil companies which have greatly profited from burning our planet without any regard for your future, and demand them to invest a large chunk of their early yearnings into funding fusion experiments ─fusion at least has the benefit that it will be more appealing to big corporations than solar or wind, because it will be largely centralized during its early stages at least.
Your generation cannot longer afford another “few more decades” of uncertainty while the world keeps heating up. Remember that in comic books, as it is often in life, villains have to be forced by the hero to do the right thing.