I’ve been on a journey to learn more about the problems we face due to the climate crisis and how technology (and by extension hopefully me in some small part one day) can help avoid what usually feels like impending doom. One of the things I’ve been doing is reading a climate related book every other month or so. So I recently picked up The Star Builders: Nuclear Fusion and the Race to Power the Planet.
It’s rather dense and good for people truly interested in the details of nuclear fusion. If you’re looking for something high-level, I’d start somewhere else. That said, nuclear fusion is exciting. We’re literally trying to reproduce the chemical reactions and physics that take places inside the stars on Planet Earth. In machines, usually tokamaks, that can magnetically contain plasma to the point it reaches one hundred million degrees (hotter than our sun).
People are enchanted by this concept because: 1) theoretical physics says it can be accomplished, 2) the problem is largely an engineering one now, 3) harnessing energy from nuclear fusion paints a path to energy independence, and 4) we can produce clean energy pretty much forever, or at least for billions of years, once we figure this out. So we’re obligated to pursue it. As Stephen Hawking said, “It would provide an inexhaustible supply of energy without pollution or global warming.”
Sadly, we’ve always been several decades away from achieving net energy gain (ability to generate more energy than is put it to initiate fusion). The challenges are quite extreme in every sense of the word. As one Nobel laureate in physics puts it, “We say that we will put the Sun into a box. The idea is pretty. The problem is, we don’t know how to make the box.” And then after the box is made, we need to confine plasma which is “…like trying to confine jelly with rubber bands.” And then you need to figure out how to harness and distribute the energy to the grid. Not easy challenges. Oh and every step of the process is subject to Murphy’s Law.
That said, it will happen. Largely because humans are resilient and tenacious and a critical mass of insanely brilliant people are focused on the problem. And capitalists are plowing billions into the space because it’s the right thing to do (and the returns will be astounding when it works).
My general takeaway is nuclear fusion is incredibly compelling and humanity needs to pursue it until it’s no longer decades away. But while people are plugging away at it, we need to invest deeply in nuclear fission. It works, we already have it, it’s scalable, and we just need to do it. Yes there are risks, but the benefits far outweigh them. And there are currently companies that are working on mitigating the nuclear waste problem that occurs from fission and making the process even safer than it already is. So while I’m terrifically excited about fusion, the book made me very perplexed and to a degree angry that we aren’t more aggressively rapidly expanding our ability to generate clean energy via fission.