On the morning of Tuesday, December 13th I turned on the CBC radio news as soon as I woke up, as I always do. The top news story brought me to immediate and complete consciousness while simultaneously putting an enormous smile on my face.
Was it really true?
Had it finally been done?
Since the beginning of the 20th century, researchers have been exploring the energy potentials within atoms, and for most of those years, scientists have been aware of the enormous benefits that would be realized from fusion power. Fusion energy is the source of energy at the center of stars, including our own sun.
With nuclear fission, a heavy atom such as uranium is split, producing energy. Fission energy was discovered in Nazi Germany in December 1938. Extensive work was then taken up by American scientists, particularly under the Manhattan Project, resulting in America committing the war crime of dropping two nuclear bombs on millions of populations in Japan.
Since then, fission has been used to fuel nuclear power plants.
The problem with nuclear fission power production is the waste from the process remains radioactive for thousands of years and is therefore impossible to safely discard.
Yet another problem with nuclear power production is its reliance on uranium. The uranium must be refined but if it is refined to too high a level, it can be used in the wrong hands to produce nuclear weapons. If a state is already refining for power plants, it’s hard to ensure they’re not on the side refining for nuclear weapons – presenting a Pandora’s box of problems, including with inspections and proliferation.
With fusion, rather than splitting two heavy atoms, two light atoms such as hydrogen are fused. There is no radiation byproduct. Better yet, absolutely no uranium is required. There is no risk of a meltdown.
The barrier to producing fusion energy that has confronted scientists for 100 years is the enormous amount of energy that is required to force two atoms to merge. The power produced by the merging of the two atoms has always been far less that the energy required to make them merge. The elusive dream was to develop a way to force two atoms to merge using less power than the process would produce.
This dream has evaded the best and brightest scientific minds decade after decade. Some believed it was simply impossible to put a piece of the sun in a bottle.
Then on Monday December. 5th 2022, researchers at the National Ignition Facility in Livermore, California achieved the breakthrough of successfully forcing two atoms to merge with less energy than the process produced.
Why has this pronouncement produced such hope and happiness for humankind? Because it has the potential to dramatically accelerate humankind’s decarbonization.
In just a few short decades, small, easy to operate and very manageable safe and clean fusion power plants could be everywhere. All of our electricity would be green.
It would also be cheap. So cheap, in fact, that some experts are predicting the end of need for hydro-electric power generation and all the negative ecological effects.
The challenge now is to commercialize this breakthrough at breakneck speed. The fast-approaching climate collapse does not give us the two-or-three-decade window that researchers predict could be required to bring this amazing technology to market.
In 1962, President John Kennedy announced that America would accomplish the impossible – to land a human on the moon by the end of the decade. With further support by subsequent President Lyndon Johnson and the dedication of substantial funding, resources, and personnel necessary to make this happen, this goal was achieved on July 20, 1969 when astronauts Neil Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin set foot on the lunar surface.
Humankind must take a leaf out of Kennedy’s book and commit to achieving the impossible – commercializing fusion power within the next decade – a goal endorsed by US President Joe Biden and former US energy secretary Ernest Moniz.
The survival of humankind hangs in the balance.
Daily atmospheric CO2 [Courtesy of CO2.Earth]
Latest daily total (Nov 28, 2022): 417.31ppm
One year ago (Dec 16, 2021): 416.67ppm
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