Is Fusion About to Make Energy Free? // Hype and reality about the recent news of a fusion success

How could free energy change the world?

Among all the forms of energy production, nuclear power is the one that generates the most fear per kilowatt. While nuclear reactors have lit up cities around the world and promise energy independence, their reputation glows with a different kind of light: an ominous green one that makes people think of radiation sickness. 

Disasters at reactors in Chernobyl, Fukushima and Three Mile Island have all left frightening images in our collective consciousness. The storage of nuclear waste and spent fuel rods—which can remain radioactive for thousands of years—has been a public policy problem for decades.

But all of that is the fault of the process of nuclear fission, which drives energy production in current nuclear plants. By contrast, nuclear fusion, scientists say, won’t have the same waste problems or require uranium, thereby avoiding the issues related to uranium production and refinement. 

Fusion as an energy source was a pipe dream for many years. But up until now, the only way we were able to efficiently create large-scale fusion was by detonating thermonuclear bombs, the so-called “H-bombs.” Of course, those aren’t helpful for anything but destruction on an unimaginable level. While they will certainly light up a city, it will only be for a few moments.

Fusion reactors just didn’t work. Many people remember the claims of cold fusion—fusion at low temperatures—with scorn. But even more likely fusion methods, such as the use of tokamak reactors, haven’t managed to surmount the most important barrier: being able to put out more energy than was put in. 

The Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory’s recent announcement that it has managed to get more energy from a fusion reaction than was put into it—a state known technically as “ignition”—was therefore lauded as an important development. 

But some of the ways it was presented—as if the key to limitless energy had finally been found—were inaccurate. And there has also been debate about what, if anything, this means with regard to practical fusion power.


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