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Controlled fusion: Are we there yet?

By Branko Brkic 23 December 2009

From the outset: No. Plain and simple. Controlled fusion is still way beyond our reach. But that doesn’t mean we’re not moving, ever so slowly, towards the ultimate prize of clean, cheap and inexhaustible energy.

For more than five decades now, nuclear fission-based power plants have generated electricity for energy-hungry humanity. Since 27 June 1954, when the USSR’s Obninsk Nuclear Power Plant sent the first 5Megawatts into the grid, almost 500 plants are now dotted across the globe. The growth in their numbers was almost stopped by the disasters at Three Mile Island in the US in 1979 and Chernobyl in the USSR in 1986, until the depletion of Earth’s oil and other fossil fuel reserves became more imminent and forced the issue to the surface again.

So now we’re building nuclear power stations once again as if there’s no tomorrow. And we still haven’t found a truly good way to store the nuclear waste, nor are we exactly sure what to do with the nuclear plants once their life cycles are over.
But what about fission’s much more powerful, efficient, cleaner and eons-longer lasting cousin, fusion? (Very simply put, fission involves splitting atoms to release energy, while fusion is, as the name implies, joining specific like-charged atomic nuclei to achieve the same goal – Ed.)

Decades after science more or less unlocked the gates of fission, the same scientists are still stumped on how to harness the power of nuclear fusion, the very process that drives the enormous energy produced by our own Sun. We’ve heard many times that we’re almost there, yet nothing has really happened. All we’ve managed to do with fusion was so far to create mind-blowingly powerful weapons that can destroy continents or plough Earth’s surface many times. But did we produce a single kilojoule to power up the nearest light bulb, and not kill us? Nope.

That may be about to change.

The National Ignition Facility at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, along with affiliated labs such as the home of nukes in Los Alamos, say they are a step closer to the Holy Grail of fusion. Using $3.5 billion of US taxpayer’s money, the much-derided scientist Edward Moses and his researchers have developed the mother of all lasers, planning to use it to smash a tiny pellet made out of a few milligrams of deuterium and tritium (both hydrogen isotopes). In theory, the smash could create a controlled middle-of-the-sun reaction, so that instead of one, continent-destroying big bang, we get a series of tiny, controllable blasts – and Voila! Humanity will not need to worry about energy ever again. Also, forget about pollution – nuclear, carbon or any other. Of course, you can also forget about the Middle East wars, giant oil corporations, lobbyists … you get the picture. It’s a very good picture.

The problem is that the laser-smash theory has been around for a couple of years, but no-one has managed to come even close to reality. But, not unlike Roy Scheider in the movie, “Jaws” (you remember; “We gonna need a bigger boat.”), Edward Moses believes that all humanity needs is a bigger laser. About $3.5 billion bigger.

Obviously, there’s some way to go before the world can start using fusion energy. The Joint European Torus project, built in the early 1980s and based in Britain, is the biggest among various magnetic confinement plasma physics experiments paving the way for future experimental nuclear fusion reactors.  One such project is the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor being built in France, involving the US, EU, India, Japan, China, Russia and South Korea, and scheduled to come on line in 2018.

In a recent article, Newsweek quotes the old joke that fusion energy is only 40 years away, and will always be only 40 years away. But even Bill Gates was surprised at the speed of the birth of the commercial Internet. Such scientific breakthroughs often take decades to gestate, but once they reach critical mass, they proliferate much like the galaxy of sub-atomic particles that remains the Holy Grail of fusion research.

Heaven knows we need the success, and soon.

By Mark Allix

Read more:  Newsweek, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, AP, Los Alamos National Laboratory, AFP

Photos: Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory

Well worth watching: Super Laser at the National Ignition Facility