05 February 2022

The New Yorker: “Can Nuclear Fusion Put the Brakes on Climate Change?”

In 1976, the U.S. Energy Research and Development Administration published a study predicting how quickly nuclear fusion could become a reality, depending on how much money was invested in the field. For around nine billion a year in today’s dollars—described as the “Maximum Effective Effort”—it projected reaching fusion energy by 1990. The scale descended to about a billion dollars a year, which the study projected would lead to “Fusion Never”. And that’s about what’s been spent, the British physicist Steven Cowley told me. Pretty close to the maximum amount you could spend in order to never get there.

In 2015, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Symposium on Fusion Engineering was held in Austin, Texas. Many key members of the plasma-physics community were there, and there were two especially noteworthy talks. The first was by the Austrian physicist Guenter Janeschitz, who not only sounds but also looks like Arnold Schwarzenegger. He gave a presentation on demo, a proposed fusion device that would be almost twice the size of iter and produce five gigawatts of power. Janeschitz envisions that, if funded, a prototype could be built in twenty years. demo is widely seen to be a clear-eyed, workable plan, and a step on the path to bringing practical fusion energy to your great-grandchildren.

Dennis Whyte gave a presentation on arc. He estimated that it could demonstrate net fusion energy in 2025 and bring fusion to the electric grid by 2030, with individual plants producing a gigawatt of power each—about what a conventional power plant provides today. demo would cost an initial thirty billion dollars; arc would be a million-dollar machine. It was very dramatic, Mumgaard said. The difference was so stark. The room was split. Roughly speaking, the younger people were buzzing with hope; the older people had perhaps been hopeful one too many times.

Rivka Galchen

In the spectrum of energy sources potentially available to humankind, nuclear fusion is essentially the Holy Grail: a very clean method of producing energy from widely available fuel and without the variability of output characterizing renewables such as solar and wind power. The trouble is… nobody was able to build a self-sustainable fusion reactor that generates more power than it consumes… yet! Having read about the topic on and off for the past two and a half decades, I’m mostly in the pessimistic camp on the question of how fast we can make progress on this technology. The article above presents a nice overview, but strikes an overly optimistic tone for my taste. I would love to be proven wrong, but I doubt we will see commercial fusion power before the middle of the century – we may well have solar power beamed down from satellites sooner than that.

How close is nuclear fusion power?

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