Let’s celebrate the fusion breakthrough, even if it’s ‘bulls-t’

Let’s celebrate the fusion breakthrough, even if it’s ‘bulls-t’

Since the beginning of time, mankind has yearned to create the sun. And for over 70 years, scientists have known how to create an artificial nuclear fusion reaction, forcing positively-charged particles to slam together and fuse, generating an enormous amount of heat. It’s something that the sun has been doing for roughly 4.6 billion years. 

But whenever humans have tried it in the past, it’s taken enormous amounts of energy to heat up the protons and get them moving fast enough to overcome their natural repulsion to one another — far more than has been generated by the reactions themselves. Containing the reaction — that is, keeping it from turning into a bomb — has also proven dicey. Achieving those two goals has been a holy grail, a dream that holds enormous promise for clean energy, long-distance space flight and other sci-fi advances. It’s also been “20 years away” for as long as the concept has been around. 

That all changed on Dec. 5, at 1:03 a.m., when a handful of night-owl scientists at the National Ignition Facility at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory bombarded a tiny capsule of frozen hydrogen with 192 intense lasers, forcing the atoms to bounce around the container at an incredibly high speed. The protons in these atoms were positively charged, which means they repel each other. 

But when they moved fast inside a relatively confined space…well, sometimes they couldn’t help but bump into each other. And forcing the protons together triggered them to fuse, emitting a burst of gamma rays with 1.5 times the energy the lasers had put into the capsule. It was the first time scientists ever managed to trigger a process called ignition, the same series of chain reactions that power the sun, producing more heat than they poured in. 

In other words, they f-king did it.

The idea of tabletop fusion has been a white whale for both scientists and consumers for the bulk of my lifetime. But now, the promise looks a lot closer to reality: Truly clean energy. No uranium. No plutonium. No nuclear waste. No gas, no coal. Hydrogen in, energy (and maybe a bit of helium) out. The lab didn’t explode. No one died in the reaction, or transformed into a superpowered octopus. So congratulations. You lived to see the dawn of the fusion age.  

…Or did you?

There are a lot of signs that the narrative around this discovery is a classic exercise in American salesmanship. First off, experiments like the one that NIF conducted do, in fact, produce radiation, in the form of stray neutrons. They can make anything they pass through radioactive, and not in the fun comic book way. 

More damning, the scientists only produced a net gain in energy if you count the power from those 192 lasers themselves, and not the power needed to run those lasers. These are very hot, concentrated lasers, which means that it takes an awful lot of power — hundreds of times the amount of energy produced in the reactor. So the official energy surplus announced this week is something of a trick of accounting. 

“Lasers are an incredibly inefficient way to do anything,” says Phillip Broughton, a health physicist (if you’re wondering what a “health physicist” is, Broughton says it’s actually a radiation safety specialist) and laser safety officer at UC Berkeley, who previously worked at the Livermore lab in a similar capacity. “It’s so much more power at the wall to make the lasers… It’s bulls-t for power. It’s not a power generation thing, and never will be.”

Broughton also noted that, while the scientists were able to produce an energy surplus from the fusion reaction, there was no way to HARNESS that energy. There was no water tank in their testing room that made steam to spin a turbine. There was just a brilliant burst of heat, and then nothing. 

Still, those limitations didn’t stop other physicists I spoke with from registering their excitement (or, at the very least, their admiration) for what the Lawrence Livermore team has accomplished. 

“This is huge,” said Matthew Bellis, associate professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at Sienna College and a member of the CMS Collaboration involving the Large Hadron Collider. “There’s a running joke that fusion energy is always 20 years in the future. You go back to when they first started working on this, probably in the ’50s or ’60s, and they were like, ‘Well, it’s 20 years down the road.’ Then 20 years later, ‘Well, just give us 20 more years, and we’ll have this. We’ll be able to create more energy out than in.’ That’s the holy grail.”

Bellis, like Broughton, is well aware of the power requirements of those big honking lasers. He believes that what the NIF team did qualifies as ignition, and pointed out that the techniques used could be applied by other labs, with more efficient lasers. Clean nuclear power generation was never the priority of the Lawrence Livermore lab, which was clandestinely founded in conjunction with The Manhattan Project to ensure the safety of America’s now-aging nuclear arsenal. Other labs, particularly in the private sector, have already been dedicating enormous resources to this project; now, they have something much closer to a blueprint for striking atomic gold. 

There’s also the possibility that this is less of a scientific breakthrough, and more of a psychological one —- one that Bellis believes could potentially accelerate a global race to producing fusion energy on a commercial scale. Let’s be frank: If something isn’t gonna happen in our lifetimes, we’re far less inclined to ever give a f-k about it, whether we’re investing in a technology or voting for our government to do so. Now, today, it feels possible — even reasonable — to give a f-k about fusion, because it might actually be coming. There’s a very big difference between something being theoretically possible and it being definitively so, and this event made the idea of fusion much more tangible, attainable, to a lot of very important and oddly useful people.

“Funding agencies can show the general public that this money is being invested in something worthwhile. I think that’s huge. I think it’s really big to be able to show people like, ‘No, this is here. Now we just have to figure out how to scale it up,’” Bellis told me. “To do a proof of principle that mankind can produce the same conditions that happen in the sun, if only for like a millisecond, is huge in giving everybody the confidence that there is a path forward for this type of energy.”

That confidence is no small matter. It has the potential to change both how the world sees fusion power and how aggressively it chases after it. You have been told, many times over, there’s no stopping the climate apocalypse, that democracy is on its deathbed, that guns will win, and on and on and on. It’s easy to forget that the future is unwritten, and that humankind is much more resourceful than we’re often given credit for. 

But listen. We went to the f-king MOON. We’ve put robots on Mars. We’ve launched two probes that are currently floating outside of our home solar system. Almost all of those breakthroughs were preceded by accidents, wrong guesses, opposition, tragedy, red herrings and false hopes. We kept trying anyway.What the scientists in Livermore did was a reminder that we have some measure of control over our destiny — and that we don’t have to choose our own demise as that destiny. 

We have to keep trying, and now, hopefully, we will. Because if we let reality hold us back, we’re all gonna f-king die.

#Lets #celebrate #fusion #breakthrough #bullst

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