December 15, 2022

Nuclear Fusion

“Scientists announced Tuesday that they have for the first time produced more energy in a fusion reaction than was used to ignite it — a major breakthrough in the decades-long quest to harness the process that powers the sun… The breakthrough will pave the way for advancements in national defense and the future of clean power, Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm and other officials said…

“Fusion works by pressing hydrogen atoms into each other with such force that they combine into helium, releasing enormous amounts of energy and heat. Unlike [nuclear fission] reactions, it doesn’t create radioactive waste.” AP News

Both sides celebrate the achievement but caution that investment into existing technologies must continue:

“This is not exciting because of the absolute energy released — that was small, only enough to boil two or three kettles… This is exciting because it’s the first scientific proof that fusion can produce more energy out than is put in, also known as ‘net energy gain’. If the numbers check out, the experiment generated 54% more energy than was put into it…  

“Releasing energy through fusion reactions isn’t unusual in the wider universe: the sun produces 4bn kilograms’ worth of pure energy from fusion reactions every single second. But, despite decades of hopes pinned on fusion as a clean and plentiful energy source on Earth, no one has ever shown it can release more energy than is needed to set it off – pretty fundamental for a power source. That is, until now.”
Arthur Turrell, The Guardian

“This is a pretty remarkable breakthrough. We may finally be on the path toward workable fusion power… in the scheme of things another 10 or 20 years to make this into an electricity generating system doesn’t seem all that far away. Now that we’ve apparently shown it’s possible there will be a renewed rush to make it better and to make it practical.”
John Sexton, Hot Air

“[The chances of converting this] energy on the grid, much less energy on the grid that is economically competitive with other forms of energy, is slim to none in the next few decades or even the next half-century, I would say…

“One can argue that we should spend more government money on fusion, but is fusion above all the other things the government could do—improving the efficiency of our grid system, helping improve energy storage? Is fusion the best bang for your buck? I would tend to argue no… We’ve spent a lot of time and a lot of effort, and no one has gotten to square one, where you can say, ‘OK, make the energy and make me a cup of tea.’ I just don’t think that we can say this is the path forward until someone has a working prototype.”
Charles Seife, Slate

The fuel for nuclear fission is already abundant — it’s about 2 million times more energy dense than hydrocarbons like oil or gas. Waste storage for spent nuclear fuel is a political problem, not a technical one: all the nuclear waste in America, if stacked up, can fit in a football field. Plus, fission is already one of the safest forms of energy ever crafted by the hand of man — second only to solar…

“This isn’t to detract from the scientific achievement at [the] National Ignition Facility, nor is it an argument against fusion. We should continue to explore its potential because societies that cease to invest in their own future cease to survive… [But] For now we have fission. We should work on figuring out how to liberate the atom from the regulatory shackles that have imprisoned it and how to become the kind of country that can build advanced engineering projects again. If we don’t, how will we ever achieve fusion?”
Emmet Penney, Spectator World

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