Over the weekend, momentous news broke of a scientific breakthrough that promises to set the world on its ear yet again: the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California has demonstrated a nuclear fusion reaction that generated more energy than it took to get going.
A very short and nontechnical explanation from this nonscientist is in order. Nuclear fusion is the energy that powers that Sun and all the stars. It requires smashing together atoms of the lighter elements, primarily hydrogen, so fast and so hard that they overcome their electrical repulsion, stick together to create a heavier element such as helium, and release tremendous amounts of energy in the process. This is the opposite of what happens in a nuclear fission reaction, in which atoms of a very heavy element such as uranium-235 or plutonium are broken apart, which also releases a large amount of energy (though not nearly so much as in nuclear fusion) and leaves behind atoms of lighter elements along with the dangerous debris of radioactive waste, which you don’t get with nuclear fusion.
Nature uses stars to generate nuclear fusion reactions—giant spherical balls of white-hot gas (again, primarily hydrogen) that have drawn together under their own gravity, generating the astounding levels of pressure and heat needed for that atom-smashing. On Earth, it is necessary to replicate those conditions artificially if you want a nuclear fusion reaction. We’ve known how to do that and get more energy than we put into the reaction for more than seventy years—but only in an uncontrolled fashion. It’s called the Bomb, Dmitri, the hydrogen bomb, and to get that fusion reaction going in one, you include a nuclear fission (“Hiroshima-type”) bomb inside it, like the world’s biggest match. A controlled fusion reaction that doesn’t devastate tens of square miles is a different matter, one that scientists have spent decades pursuing. Until now, they always had to put more energy into it than they got out of it, which of course rendered the process useless for producing energy that could be turned into electricity for everyone’s benefit.
The leaked news ahead of the official announcement scheduled for tomorrow indicates that there are still enormous technical challenges to be overcome before we can have utility-scale nuclear fusion. Exactly how long this takes matters enormously, of course, because of today’s sober scientific consensus that we have less than a decade left to significantly curb carbon emissions from burning fossil fuels before global warming becomes catastrophic. (Decades ago, an old friend of mine observed wryly that controlled nuclear fusion always seems to be twenty to thirty years away from becoming a commercial reality.) We are looking at a likely scenario of near-free and nonpolluting energy becoming available just in time to help mitigate some of the problems caused by rising sea levels flooding countless cities, continent-wide droughts, vast areas becoming uninhabitable, etc. But now that we have “proof of concept” of workable nuclear fusion, every nation with the money and scientific expertise to pour into it will do so, speeding the needed technical progress.
It is impossible to overstate the possible ramifications of this advance, from saving our sorry asses to colonizing other solar systems. But let’s pause for a moment, first to inject a note of skeptical caution about the way this news has emerged (though it seems unlikely that we have a repeat of the 1989 “cold fusion” debacle on our hands). Second, assuming the news holds up, we have a momentous American achievement that can give the United States a decisive advantage in the new century; and it is an American government achievement, a monumental rebuke to the Reaganite/libertarian “government is the problem” mindset. This was no thanks to Elon Musk, who is busy investing enough money and attention to give the whole world clean drinking water in making social media safe for Nazis, nor to Jeff Bezos, Richard Branson, Warren Buffett, Bill Gates, or any of the other astronomically rich and powerful individuals of our time.
Third, it is absolutely essential that the U.S. government and those of other nations start planning now for the enormous societal disruptions that will take place when the Age of Oil ends, a terminus that is now coming into view. The entire world economy is based on fossil fuels, which is of course what has made cutting back their use difficult verging on impossible in practical terms, something that would likely still be the case even if the fossil fuel industry itself weren’t spending enormous sums trying to poke sticks into the spinning bicycle wheel of progress. It’s indisputably the case that millions of people and even entire states and countries have based their livelihoods on digging up and burning the peat bogs of one hundred million years ago. The “capitalist” era of world history has given us object lesson after object lesson in the terrible consequences of letting the so-called free market take care of the victims of technological change. Unless we want another wave of Trumpism or worse to wash over us in ten or twenty years, the time to start these massive societal recalibrations is now.
And one final note of warning: there is no technology humans have ever invented beginning with fire itself that has not become a weapon of war. It is true that, as discussed earlier in this essay, in this instance the mass death-dealing use of fusion technology was discovered first, and still casts a pall of possible global extinction over our civilization. How it can get worse than that, even this pessimistic science fiction writer can’t imagine, but I have faith in human ingenuity.