US announces breakthrough on fusion energy

There’s a long way to go, and this is just the first step, but it is a key first step. The potential of this breakthrough is spectacular.

Scientists at a federal facility have created more energy from nuclear fusion reactions than they used to start the process, Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm confirmed on Tuesday.

Granholm said the development moved the country significantly closer to the possibility of fusion energy, a carbon-free source, with officials calling the discovery a breakthrough.

“This is one of the most impressive scientific feats of the 21st century,” Granholm said at a press conference, adding that researchers have been working on the effort for 60 years. 

Nuclear fusion refers to fusing atoms together to produce energy. The type of nuclear energy that is commonly used today does the opposite, deriving energy from splitting atoms apart.

For decades, scientists have sought to advance nuclear fusion as a clean energy source that doesn’t produce the radioactive waste that occurs when atoms are split apart, though it may have some radioactive byproducts that stay at the power plant site and not require long term storage, an expert recentlysaid.

Granholm said that the administration had a goal of achieving commercial fusion within a decade.

However, at the press conference, Kim Budil, director of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory where the breakthrough occurred, said it could take “decades” before the technology is commercialized. 

“There are very significant hurdles” in both science and technology, Budil said. 

The development of fusion-energy production would effectively end the arguments about how the U.S. and the world can develop sufficient energy without producing carbon emissions that would exacerbate climate change.

Fusion would be a game changer, as it lacks the public-relations problems that environmentalists have attached to conventional nuclear reactors: The process would generate essentially no hazardous waste and wouldn’t even require hazardous fuel. Operational fusion power would probably be so efficient that it would permanently put most other forms of generating electricity out of business, as it would likely be too cheap to meter.

I also wonder A) how many people would like to sabotage the development of cold-fusion energy production because it would put their whole industry out of business and B) how many countries would like to ensure that they have an edge in turning this experimental breakthrough into widespread reality ahead of the United States. Or maybe I just saw too many Keanu Reeves thrillers back in the 1990s.

The reason we need fusion is to destroy the Malthusian belief system, which, in my estimation, is the preeminent threat to human civilization today. If one accepts the idea that resources are limited, then all nations are fundamentally enemies, and the only issue is who is going to kill whom in order to claim what’s available. At bottom, this was the source of the major catastrophes of the 20th century. It could cause far worse in the 21st. This mindset, however, is false. We are not threatened by there being too many people. We are threatened by people who think there are too many people.

Fusion power can save us by utterly refuting the limited-resource thesis. The amount of deuterium fusion fuel present in one gallon of water contains as much energy as that produced by burning 350 gallons of gasoline. That’s all water on earth, fresh or salt. A gallon of water from Mars contains deuterium with the energy content of 2,000 gallons of gasoline. Other planets or asteroids may offer more still. So what we are talking about with fusion is unlimited energy. With enough energy, you can do anything. In the entire history of human civilization we have not used up a single kilogram of iron or aluminum. We have just degraded some matter from more convenient to less convenient forms. With enough energy, we can rearrange it back, recycling it faster and faster from one form to another. We will never run out of anything.

Furthermore, fusion does not simply represent unlimited energy — it is a new kind of energy with which we could do things that we simply can’t do now. With fusion power, for instance, we could create fusion rockets, which could attain speeds up to 10 percent the speed of light, opening our path to the stars.

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