Putting Recent News About A Nuclear Fusion Breakthrough In (Balanced) Perspective

As a general rule-of-thumb, you should never take news of a “scientific breakthrough” at face value. It’s not that the science is flawed or that the media reporting it are uninformed or misguided. It’s just incomplete. The rhetoric rarely matches the results, nor does it fully grasp the implications.

To some extent, that’s unavoidable. People who actually do science rarely use terms like “breakthrough” or “revolutionary.” Despite what popular media might depict, science doesn’t make giant leaps like that. It usually makes gradual steps full of small, but meaningful advances. It rarely makes for attention-grabbing headlines, but that’s how most scientific progress is made. It’s like building a house brick-by-brick. One brick alone is not a breakthrough. It’s the totality of the structure that garner’s the most vlaue.

When it comes to any news on nuclear fusion, it helps to be even more restrained. I’ve been following tech news for most of my life. During that time, I’ve seen plenty of articles and news releases from mainstream sources claiming some major breakthrough. Some give the impression that we’re just a few years away from using fusion to power starships to Mars. That’s a very flawed, very uniformed perspective.

In that same mold, I’ve also seen plenty of news articles saying nuclear fusion is an impossible dream that nobody will see in their lifetime. There’s a common refrain among these skeptics. They’ll often say something along the lines of “Nuclear fusion is 30 years away and always will be.” It’s a very cynical, very narrow-minded understanding of the issue. It also paints a flawed perspective of where we actually are in the science.

With those two perspectives in mind, how do we make sense of the latest news purporting a fusion breakthrough? In case you haven’t heard, the news came courtesy of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, which is not some fringe company or organization. This is something they’ve been working on for decades and this was a big moment for them, according to the Financial Times.

FT: Fusion energy breakthrough by US scientists boosts clean power hopes

US government scientists have made a breakthrough in the pursuit of limitless, zero-carbon power by achieving a net energy gain in a fusion reaction for the first time, according to three people with knowledge of preliminary results from a recent experiment.

Physicists have since the 1950s sought to harness the fusion reaction that powers the sun, but no group had been able to produce more energy from the reaction than it consumes — a milestone known as net energy gain or target gain, which would help prove the process could provide a reliable, abundant alternative to fossil fuels and conventional nuclear energy.

The federal Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, which uses a process called inertial confinement fusion that involves bombarding a tiny pellet of hydrogen plasma with the world’s biggest laser, had achieved net energy gain in a fusion experiment in the past two weeks, the people said.

Although many scientists believe fusion power stations are still decades away, the technology’s potential is hard to ignore. Fusion reactions emit no carbon, produce no long-lived radioactive waste and a small cup of the hydrogen fuel could theoretically power a house for hundreds of years.

The US breakthrough comes as the world wrestles with high energy prices and the need to rapidly move away from burning fossil fuels to stop average global temperatures reaching dangerous levels.

Now, compared to other news about “breakthroughs” from mainstream media, this is fairly balanced in that it doesn’t make too many bold claims. It makes clear that commercial fusion power stations are still decades away. But that was never the point of this experiment, nor is it the purpose of the article.

The most important detail from this news is the results the scientists produced. For the first time, a nuclear fusion reactor achieved a net energy gain. That means the generator put out more energy than was put into it. Specifically, the experiment produced an excess of 1.37 megajoules of energy, which amounted to approximately 70 percent more than the energy that was put into the reactor.

That is major news.

That is an achievement worth celebrating.

Because to date, plenty of laboratories throughout the world had achieved fusion. That’s not some act of scientific magic on par with anti-gravity or perpetual motion. The issue with fusion has never been about the physics. It has always been an engineering and logistic challenge, more so than fission ever was.

Creating fusion only requires a few ingredients. You need lots of heat, some hydrogen, and a way to confine it all in a structure. The big challenge that has been taking so many years has been to do all this in a way that generates more power than what goes into it. That’s something no other reactor has achieved until this experiment.

Now, it has been done.

We now know it’s possible to create a nuclear fusion reaction that generates more energy than what goes into it.

This is akin to the first ever cell phone call, which occurred in 1973. And it wasn’t until 1983, a full decade later, that the first commercial cell phone went on the market. That first phone was not very good and nowhere near as efficient as the cheapest phone you can get today. But it did work and it did get the ball rolling on the market.

That’s not to say that fusion will follow a similar timeline, but that comparison helps give perspective to where we’re at right now. Just getting a new technology to work is one thing. Making it a commercial product on some level takes time because the technology requires greater refinement, investment, and engineering.

But that process can only start after someone proves that it is technically possible. Fusion did not have that until this news. On top of that, investment in nuclear fusion has never been very high, compared to other technologies. In fact, it has only been in the past couple of years that more public and private investment has flowed in to developing nuclear fusion. So, that old joke about fusion always being 30 years away was missing a key detail. Any technology is going to develop slowly if there isn’t sufficient investment.

Now that one lab has succeeded in showing that a net energy gain is possible with fusion, others can follow. Hopefully, it inspires even more investment. With those investments will come more refinements and efficiencies. If those efforts are sustained, fusion doesn’t just become possible. It becomes inevitable.

The past couple decades have seen one too many price spikes in oil and other fossil fuels. Recent geopolitical conflicts have only shown just how vital it is for us to get off fossil fuels as quickly as possible. And our energy demands are only going to keep going up in the coming years. Add on top of that all the environmental concerns surrounding fossil fuels and the urgency for nuclear fusion has never been greater.

We’re still not going to see fusion plants popping up tomorrow, next year, or the year after that. But with this news, we’ve taken a critical first step. And many of those reading this will likely live to see the day when fusion energy powers their homes. That’s something worth looking forward to.

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