More Reactions to Fusion Confusion

December 13, 2022

Bill McKibben in the New Yorker:

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 Postdescribed 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.

UPDATE:

Getting a little ahead of ourselves.

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7 Responses to “More Reactions to Fusion Confusion”

  1. renewableguy Says:

    And the fossil fuel ploy would be, we should wait until fusion is ready.

  2. jimbills Says:

    Watching CBS News last night, their national broadcast said that it was 30 years away from mass commercialization. I don’t see why that timeline couldn’t be sped up if we really tried to do it, but I’m doubting we’ll try.

    • rhymeswithgoalie Says:

      Speeding up the timeline would take hard-fought budgeting that we need for upgrading the grid to handle worse storms, more heat pumps (including A/Cs), and a shift to EVs.

      • jimbills Says:

        But, we COULD be spending a lot more than we are on the energy transition, and we aren’t. It’s maybe 1% of the annual budget. This is from 2016, but it gives the picture:

        My point is that we are all screwed up on priorities. Obviously, fusion would be a powerful answer to climate change, and it answers the questions about nuclear waste. But instead, we’ll make excuses why it isn’t a priority, continue spending 20x+ more on defense and debt interest, and restrict the budget for that obvious answer, an answer not just for the U.S., but for the entire world.

        Doesn’t make any sense to me, but it’s the highest probability outcome imo, knowing our track record.

        • rhymeswithgoalie Says:

          This is the energy-associated bill item part of the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022. This is how that $369b is divided up:

  3. Mark Mev Says:

    My knowledge of this area is very dated and goes back decades to when I was a fanboy of fusion research.
    My understanding was that the inertial confinement research was directed for defense much much more than commercial power.
    The materials and engineering needed to build a real magnetic confinement commercial power plant does not exist at the moment and is decades away (again, my limited knowledge of present day capabilities).
    I’m not familiar with any realistic analysis of what it would take to do this for inertial confinement.
    Comments and criticism is very welcomed. The over the top hype that I’ve read the last couple of days has me wondering if I’m missing some great announcements on fusion plant design. Just remembered that I took a graduate class on fusion plant design decades ago. God that was so long ago I had forgotten.

  4. ubrew12 Says:

    Slow-walking nuclear fusion will benefit one industry more than all others. And, based on the last 40 years, Big Fossils will get what it wants.


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