Nuclear fusion power was supposed to be a dream come true. As soon as we discovered that you could smash little atoms together to make bigger atoms and release a small amount of energy in the process, scientists around the world realized the implications of this new bit of physics knowledge. Some wanted to turn it into weapons, but others wanted to develop it into a clean, efficient, inexhaustible supply of electrical energy.
But it turns out that fusion power is … hard. Really hard. Really complicated. Full of unexpected pitfalls and traps. We've been trying to build fusion generators for three-quarters of a century, and we've made a lot of progress — enormous, groundbreaking, horizon-expanding progress. But we're not there yet. Fusion power has been one of those things that's been "only 20 years away" for about 50 years now.
The primary challenge is that while it's relatively straightforward to make fusion happen — we did it all the time with thermonuclear weapons — it's much more difficult to make the reaction slow and controlled while extracting useful energy from it.
In the modern era, there are two major approaches to attempting useful nuclear fusion power. One is based on a process called inertial confinement, where you shoot a bunch of lasers at a small target and make it explode, triggering a brief fusion reaction. In December 2022, the Department of Energy's National Ignition Facility (NIF) made headlines for using this method to achieve "breakeven," where more energy is released from the fuel than went into it.
The other approach is based on magnetic confinement, where powerful magnetic fields squeeze on a plasma until it begins fusing. Experiments here have come a long way but have run into continued struggles in ensuring that the plasma remains stable, which is necessary for a steady fusion reaction. The latest iteration, called ITER, is currently under construction by an international research consortium, which hopes that, when finished, ITER will be the first magnetic confinement device to achieve breakeven.
But the NIF is not designed to generate electricity, and it's not clear how to turn its process into a power plant. For all its might, it produced a whopping five cents' worth of electricity through fusion. Besides, "breakeven" has a technical meaning that is somewhat disappointing. Yes, the fuel released more energy than was absorbed, but only less than 1% of the energy of the entire apparatus made it to the fuel in the first place. As for ITER, the facility is hopelessly mired in mismanagement and cost overruns, and it's not even designed to generate electricity itself.
When will fusion power finally happen?
I can't say for certain when, if ever, we'll achieve sustainable fusion power. But here are my odds, constructed entirely unscientifically: a 10% chance in the next 20 years, a 50% chance in the next century, a 30% chance within the next 100 years after that, and a 10% chance of it never happening.
Where am I getting these numbers? Fusion power is what I like to call a generational, or century-level, challenge. Humanity has achieved these kinds of projects before: massive irrigation projects at the dawn of human history, the building of massive temples and cities, and the development of steam power, railroads, cathedrals and more.
Usually, these kinds of projects require involvement over multiple generations. Sometimes we can accelerate our progress and complete them in a short amount of time when we pour enormous amounts of resources into them and simultaneously get really lucky with the right people, leadership, talent and know-how in place. We've seen this happen relatively recently, with the Manhattan Project and moonshot initiatives.
But in the mid-20th century, when we had the opportunity to spend a generation's worth of time and money in the direction of nuclear research, we had a choice between bombs and power plants — and we chose bombs. So when the power plant line of research didn't progress as quickly (because it wasn't given a century-level investment), starting in the 1950s, it just petered out and putzed along.
This means fusion research has been relegated to the same priority as most other lines of research, which means it will take roughly a century to come to fruition. But that's OK. We'll take our time with this, we'll get it right, and it will be worth it.
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Paul M. Sutter is an astrophysicist at SUNY Stony Brook and the Flatiron Institute in New York City. Paul received his PhD in Physics from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 2011, and spent three years at the Paris Institute of Astrophysics, followed by a research fellowship in Trieste, Italy, His research focuses on many diverse topics, from the emptiest regions of the universe to the earliest moments of the Big Bang to the hunt for the first stars. As an "Agent to the Stars," Paul has passionately engaged the public in science outreach for several years. He is the host of the popular "Ask a Spaceman!" podcast, author of "Your Place in the Universe" and "How to Die in Space" and he frequently appears on TV — including on The Weather Channel, for which he serves as Official Space Specialist.
Yes fusion power of Earth will be a gamechanger but as recent experiments have shown you can beam power to Earth from space so why not use the biggest natural fusion reactor (The Sun) we will ever have available to power the Earth cleanly in the future. A few more experiments to work out the cost/benefits may yet make this happenReply
I believe that adding reflectors and beaming more sunlight to earth is a dangerous concept. The best we have is what.....under 25% conversion of sunlight. All the rest is heat. Any added sunlight will heat the planet.Reply
Let's flip this channel upside down. What's the largest heat sink on this planet? I don't believe it to be the poles. I believe it's deep ocean water. ~33 degree water. I believe our climate is controlled with this sink......and that sink is controlled by evaporation. A see-saw dynamic, just one of thousands of climate dynamics. We have a lot of cold water. Kept cold in warm cradles.
So the best temperature sink is ~33 degrees. How much more energy could we harvest if our sink was just a few degrees above absolute zero?
We should start to see some applications of this. The 10 um IR slot in our atmosphere allows this. And it appears that this can be done not only passively, but cheaply with common materials.
Some amazing proof of concept numbers sound like a dream come thru. 20-30 F degrees surface drop at high noon on equator. This is below the dew point in many regions......free passive atmospheric water along with it.
Crushed quartz glass/sand to the proper ratio with reflective index seems to do it. It seems to absorb the energy of light and IR and then, re-radiate in that space slot. This also can produce current along with that temp drop. Thermo-electric materials and the voltage of such, has also improved greatly.
That difference between light and dark can give us electrical power, water, and temperature regulation. Passively. A passive self powered home. All from sunlight and shade.
As for fusion power........not for a very long time. If ever.
When you induce a particle, it shrinks. That shrinkage causes the inertia to increase(more resistance to acceleration)......AND....the area of interaction reduces......SO..... it takes a stronger or denser acceleration to move it........more than before it shrunk. More inertia and smaller size. This is why you believe that it takes infinite energy to accelerate mass to c.
This shrinkage is like a ratchet. If you stop the acceleration before that ratchet level, the particle will keep it's velocity and relax it's inertia, ....then accelerate it again to the ratchet point, the particle will gain velocity.....without that inertia gain.......and that shrinkage.
Intermittent acceleration. To c. But no faster. For we have nothing faster to propel with.
"a 10% chance in the next 20 years, a 50% chance in the next century, a 30% chance within the next 100 years after that and a 10% chance of it never happening."Reply
LOL! I suspect we'll be long extinct before we ever see commercial power from fusion; sadly! But we did great producing a hydrogen (fusion) bomb...
We won't be here in "another century". We will be lucky if a single human being remains on the planet by 2030. Climate change is now abrupt, exponential, and irreversible. The part no one gets is the "exponential" factor. Scientist's predictive models did not include the exponential impacts of multiple cascading tipping points, which have already been breached. 2024 will be much warmer than 2023 and 2023 was a disaster that continues to keep climatologists awake at night. 2024 will bring food shortages and massive disasters. It's too bad the US Government did not build nuclear power plants instead of nuclear weapons. It's too bad the US Government did not act in 1987 when they were warned by Carl Sagan and James Hansen that climate change posed an existential threat to humanity.Admin said:We've been 'close' to achieving fusion power for 50 years. When will it actually happen?
We've been 'close' to achieving fusion power for 50 years. When will it actually happen? : Read more
Space Solar Power arrays, and power down to Earth via benign steady microwave is a distinct possibility given space colonization to permanently "backstop" its building and maintenance. But rather than enormous fields of reception on the Earth surface out in the middle of nowhere screwing up the ecology, I'd like to see it realized that the cities and towns of Earth themselves could be turned into beamed power reception points, reception farms, without any "middleman."steve_foston said:Yes fusion power of Earth will be a gamechanger but as recent experiments have shown you can beam power to Earth from space so why not use the biggest natural fusion reactor (The Sun) we will ever have available to power the Earth cleanly in the future. A few more experiments to work out the cost/benefits may yet make this happen
As to fusion power plants, they are closer to fruition than you think. Once realized, though, fusion will have the same capability of reduction and individualization as computers have had. Greater and longer time source electric power in a briefcase or smaller size replacing battery racks and packs, and maybe batteries themselves, so to speak.
Gloom and doom. We'll do just fine after a few million/billion people die off due to climate change. Call it a mother nature's reset.Magik13 said:We won't be here in "another century". We will be lucky if a single human being remains on the planet by 2030. Climate change is now abrupt, exponential, and irreversible. The part no one gets is the "exponential" factor. Scientist's predictive models did not include the exponential impacts of multiple cascading tipping points, which have already been breached. 2024 will be much warmer than 2023 and 2023 was a disaster that continues to keep climatologists awake at night. 2024 will bring food shortages and massive disasters. It's too bad the US Government did not build nuclear power plants instead of nuclear weapons. It's too bad the US Government did not act in 1987 when they were warned by Carl Sagan and James Hansen that climate change posed an existential threat to humanity.
I think the last option is correct. We will never be able to generate fusion energy. Earth is made of the ashes left behind after nuclear fusion in supernovas. Turning ashes back into fuel is a dream-impossible. Nuclear fusion is not spontaneous on earth, unlike fission. During fission energy flows out, but during fusion, energy is squeezed out, as happens in stars under very high compression. So, energy input will always be greater than energy output in fusion reactions on earth.Reply
This article seems to have little technical validity. The guessed-at probabilities of achieving commercial fusion power have no stated basis except vague musings about historical projects of much different nature. And the discussion about "choosing" to make bombs and letting fusion electric power research languish seems backwards from my experience. There has been huge investment into fusion research by multiple countries for decades.Reply
And, the article totally misses the point about fuel availability. Even if/when we achieve stable fusion with heavy isotopes of hydrogen (the easiest way to make atomic nuclei fuse), we have the problem that those isotopes are relatively rare and are mixed thoroughly with the light isotope of hydrogen, so it takes a lot of energy to extract/refine the fuels for the fusion processes that need heavy hydrogen to work. Getting that fuel producing process allow the overall fusion process to be energy producing instead of energy consuming is another huge hurdle that needs to be achieved to make commercial electric power by fusion.
The only way I see commercial electric power generation by fusion is to use much more readily available fuels. I think the most realistically feasible option would be to fuse abundant light hydrogen with the most abundant isotope of boron. Hydrogen-1 fused with Boron-11 makes 3 Helium-4 nuclei (also called alpha particles) and releases energy. But, it requires much higher temperatures and pressures than fusing hydrogen-2 with hydrogen-3. At least it does not produce neutron radiation and the alpha particles are easily shielded and captured to produce the heat to produce electric power. But, it releases less energy per fusion event, too. see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aneutronic_fusion .
As for the odds of this happening - I don't expect to see it in my remaining lifetime, so making any bets would be a waste of my time because I could never collect, even if eventually proven correct.
No one reading this story will live long enough to enjoy man-made fusion power. THIS IS THE ONLY CONCEPT THAT WILL WORK:Admin said:We've been 'close' to achieving fusion power for 50 years. When will it actually happen?
We've been 'close' to achieving fusion power for 50 years. When will it actually happen? : Read more
The only concert that works, here presented WTIC:Reply