Fusion is the Answer. Are We Asking the Right Question?

When the right answer comes out of a flawed paradigm, what outcomes can reasonably be expected?

The preamplifiers of the National Ignition Facility are the first step in increasing the energy of laser beams as they make their way toward the target chamber. Photo credit: Damien Jemison/LLNL

Fusion Is the Answer.

When I went to work at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, construction had begun for the National Ignition Facility (NIF) at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California. It seemed everyone at both laboratories had a strongly-held opinion about the viability and value of the NIF project. Debates from California and New Mexico to Washington DC centered around scientific, engineering, design, political, and financial issues. The Department of Energy expected the facility to be built for around $1.1 billion with an additional $1 billion in related research costs and a completion date of 2002. Ultimately, the NIF construction was considered complete in early 2009 and at a cost of well over $4 billion. By 2010, large-scale ignition experiments were underway.

The mission of the NIF is to achieve fusion ignition with a high gain in energy. On December 5th of this year, the major scientific breakthrough in this domain was accomplished as the NIF became the first fusion reactor to reach an energy gain of 1.5. In the controlled fusion experiment, 3.15 megajoules of energy were produced from 2.05 megajoules of laser light energy, resulting in a gain of roughly 1.5.* This is why you’ve been hearing news of the “Fusion Breakthrough” everywhere in the past week. It’s a very big deal. And while it was always a big deal for nuclear weapons research, it has become at least as big a deal as a hoped-for solution to the climate crises facing humanity.

No one has ever believed fusion was easy and many believed it wasn’t possible at all. Even for the true-believers, it was always going to be very expensive and never a fast turnaround. The idea has been around since the 1920s when British physicist Arthur Stanley Eddington first suggested that the power of the sun and other stars came from the fusion of hydrogen atoms in a way that produced helium. Once the theory was proven correct, the idea of harnessing this natural energy of the universe for power here on Earth became a holy grail for some.

It seemed too good to be true — a clean, safe energy source starting from the most abundant element in the universe (hydrogen) and ending in completely harmless elements (helium and water). The process of nuclear fusion is the opposite of our experience with the process of nuclear fission — a process that starts with splitting atoms apart and sometimes ends with an unearthly explosion or a leaking reactor (both cases generally accompanied by levels of radioactivity that are anything but harmless.)

Lacking the intense gravity of the sun to force atoms together, on Earth fusion reactors must rely on confinement (so the atoms are forced to stay in close proximity) at the high heat levels close to those found on the sun. That’s no small order. To that end, the NIF is considered a laser-based inertial confinement fusion (ICF) device. A laser the size of a football field is directed at a pea-sized bead filled with deuterium and tritium within the confinement chamber.** There are many other smaller-scale fusion research projects being conducted around the world and while some are ICFs, others take the approach of magnetic confinement fusion. The largest project designed to employ magnetic confinement is the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER), located in southern France but a joint megaproject between China, the European Union, India, Japan, Russia, South Korea, and the United States. The idea here is to confine a plasma inside of a giant magnetic container so that the charged plasma gets hotter and hotter until fusion occurs. Construction of the torus-shaped magnetic confinement machine (the tokamak) at ITER began in 2013 and is projected to be at full fusion testing operation in 2035 (at a 2016 estimated cost of over $22 billion.) I’ve dramatically over-simplified the description of these two primary fusion approaches but even so it should be obvious that the challenges with both of the processes are many-fold and, at the scale of the NIF and ITER, the projects have equated to questionable “moonshot” efforts for many scientists and funders.

Cutaway diagram of the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) the largest tokamak in the world. Blue human figure at bottom shows scale. U.S. Department of Energy – 425 003 001

When the planning for ITER (which means “the way” or “the Path” in Latin) began, I heard the same mix of strong opinions from my colleagues at Los Alamos and the administrators and politicians in DC. Even 10 years ago, many were quick to point out that the NIF had yet to deliver on fusion ignition and some were still adamant that it never would, but it’s important to note that the money and the brain power were still being committed to the project and now the massive investment in ITER was also being made. When the major breakthrough came at the NIF two weeks ago, celebration of the news was quickly followed by at least as many disclaimers about its impracticality, its unlikeliness to go any further, the fallibility of the science as well as the engineering behind the reactor, its hopelessness in terms of meeting the timeframe needed for addressing the climate crisis, and so on.

Can Fusion be the Answer?

The points raised and obstacles pointed at should not be discouraging as they are all well-known and have been being worked on for decades. What is most salient here is that the progress made in the last year on the fusion front is more than that made in those same decades. When the naysayers remind us (as if we could forget) that we don’t have decades more to wait for this major breakthrough of breakeven on fusion energy generation, they’re right. So maybe we should stop putting our resources into bringing new coal plants online in England or dumping and then having to “clean up” pipeline oil in Kansas or initiating new drilling leases in the Gulf of Mexico. (And maybe we should quit listening to commentary in climate newsletters like that of Politico which has Chevron as its sponsor.) Maybe if we stop letting the corporate powers with competing interests keep us from putting a full-force global effort into fusion, the new achievement at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory proves we could match ongoing scientific improvements with plants and infrastructure in one decade if we now built on the NIF’s success and used it in a laser program focused on research and application for fusion energy.

After all, a “moonshot” is, by definition, an inordinately ambitious effort aimed at a nearly incomprehensible goal. It’s initiated with the expectation of requiring at least 10 times the investment in resources for at least 10 times the result of most other solid efforts in the same domain. It can’t be done merely by working harder and it always requires the combined efforts of talent outside of the traditional team. A moonshot always seems to be taking on the impossible and the goal aimed for always seems to be too good to be true. The history of humanity is full of successful moonshots.*** For better and worse, it’s how we got to today.

Are We Asking the Right Question?

Having followed fusion closely for so many years, and long believing it held the strongest answer to our energy concerns, the news of “breakeven” at the NIF on December 5th seemed to me to be a major bright spot in this rather dark year. But I’ve also been a close observer of our climate crises and our all too human response to these crises. As the fusion news is settling in, I’m wrestling with two questions and neither have to do with whether we can execute on the fusion science and engineering needed to make it a viable energy source for the world in time to save our species and others from the future we currently face. The bigger questions seem to me to be: will fusion be the answer, and should fusion be the answer.

Will Fusion Be the Answer?

The immediate response to achieving breakeven ignition at the NIF contained within it the predictable and omnipresent seeds of

  • attachment to what currently is the life many people in developed countries are living,
  • skepticism regarding what goes against the status quo and/or the received dogma,
  • a fairly natural human inclination toward an initial negative response, and
  • the oppositional yet deeply entrenched roots of capitalism that ensnarl most aspects of our present and presumed future.

Examples abound on every front. But when it comes to efforts to mitigate the climate crises, we need only look at a few of these examples to see what the chances are for a fusion moonshot in the timeframe necessary to redirect our current climate trajectory. Consider the long history of lies told to consumers by the oil and gas companies. Maybe look at the so-called climate bills that contain within them at least one step backward for every step forward. Closer to home may be the extreme reaction of many to the idea of giving up their regular indulgence in juicy but environmentally-costly hamburgers. Zooming back out to the bigger system but still including the consumer, there’s the unaddressed impracticality and dangers inherent in the government- and industry-endorsed move to the unchallenged dominance of electric vehicles to the exclusion of any other viable option. Then there’s the immediate embrace of new coal plants and wood-burning facilities when the long-warned-about over-dependence on a single-source provider of gas and oil collapses. Look at the high degree of obfuscation, intractability, and reneging that occurred at the only worldwide vehicle for international negotiation and joint planning on climate-related issues and actions (COP27 in Egypt last month). And don’t forget the continued high levels of climate denial in the public and private spheres.

Beyond the politicians, the climate “negotiators,” the corporate bureaucrats, the money changers, and the general public, the scientists and the media have played their parts in detracting from the idea of a fusion moonshot. If an expert wants to detract from the fusion breakthrough, there are many ways to break down the experiment and the time, energy, and dollars that went into it. Never mind that this is the case for any experiment ever done in pursuit of a breakthrough big or small. But the experts are right in their quasi-dismissal of the profundity of the science in light of the likely intensity of the very practical obstacles. These will come in the form of regulatory constraints and political objection (sometimes ideologically grounded, other times based on local constituent interests, and most often founded on the indebtedness to corporate lobbyists and oligarchs). These obstacles are often more intractable than the world-moving issues grounded in the physics of the universe faced in the laboratories and tokamaks, or on CAD screens. Will we let fusion be the answer?

Should Fusion Be the Answer?

This question woke me up from a dead sleep a few days after the breakeven was achieved. We demonize coal and oil and gas but they are not the problem. They’ve always been here. What we call fossil fuels are Earth’s natural byproducts. There’s even evidence that Neanderthals burned coal. It was no problem for them. We — modern humans — are the problem. The line came to mind that Robert Oppenheimer is said to have quoted from the Bhagavad-Gita upon witnessing the successful 1945 test detonation of the atomic bomb in New Mexico: Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.****

To be clear, for me the question of whether we should do a fusion moonshot to, in part, solve our climate crises with this form of energy is not about comparing it to the atomic bomb resulting from the use of nuclear fission. It’s true that we don’t really know the full consequences, intended or unintended, of a large-scale use of fusion energy on Earth, but the physics alone tell us the risks are not in any way similar to what we actually knew would happen with nuclear fission, which is why we went after it in the Manhattan Project moonshot to end the war.

Photo by Pixabay

Rather, what woke me up was related to all that I’ve thought and written about regarding the frantic drive toward technological solutions as the answer versus any truly serious attempt to make changes to the way that we live upon this living, breathing planet. In other posts I’ve detailed the many issues with full-tech solutions as well as the many understandable reasons this approach is so seductive. But imagine for a moment that with the help of an energy system generated by nuclear fusion we now live in a world that operates on 100 percent clean energy. We’ve achieved the moonshot and our dependence on fossil fuels is lifted around the world. And still, our climate crisis persists in many of its current forms because (1) we haven’t been able to remove the carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases already filling the Earth’s atmosphere, and (2) we haven’t changed our economy, our consumption habits, nor our fundamental practices in how we do things like agriculture and manufacturing that keep us completely out of balance with nature. Despite these processes and practices being fed by clean energy, we’re still taking one-sidedly from the earth and producing through factories at the same endlessly growing rate because we did not change our social, cultural, political, and economic philosophies, behaviors, or accountabilities. We may reduce our emissions to a certain extent (are we still eating hamburgers? are we still using cooling agents with the most potent greenhouse gas SF6 in the switchgears for most of our electrical connectors, including in wind turbines?*****), but our forests will still be at risk, our soil lacking in nutrition, our rivers still polluted with pesticides and fertilizer run-off, our oceans filled with plastics and other toxins, our landfills and desert dumps overflowing, our urban areas covered in hard surfaces that don’t absorb water, and our bio-diversity still dramatically declining. We did it — we made the hoped-for move from fossil fuels to clean energy but because we never changed how we got to this crisis, what we did was not nearly enough.

In making our energy cleaner and safer, we also will be giving ourselves license to continue to destroy our world because we don’t really want to make all the other changes required. Should we let fusion be the answer? What would we do if we fully understood and acted as if we — modern humans — are the problem? What would we do to regain our balance with and within nature?

Photo by Marek Piwnicki on Pexels

* The 192 lasers used in the experiment consumed 322 megajoules of energy in the process of getting to ignition.

** The fusion process only requires one gram of the deuterium-tritium mixture to produce 90,000-kilowatt hours of energy, or the equivalent of the energy produced by11 tonnes of coal. While deuterium can be extracted from seawater and is thus a virtually inexhaustible resource, tritium is much less available and a replacement will have to be found in order to have enough material for a viable power supply.

*** As a relatively recent example, the effort announced in 1961 to put a human on the moon within the decade was a [literal] moonshot. The technology for that effort wasn’t even close to complete and the path forward wasn’t yet clear. And it was accomplished in eight years. The Human Genome Project, for another example, was biology’s moonshot. The goal was to identify, map, and sequence each of the ~100,000 human genes. $2.7 billion and 13 years of effort from scientists from all over the world were invested in that moonshot and the results led to ground-breaking insights and knowledge for the disciplines related to molecular biology, genetic medicine, and human evolution. (The first 13 years completed the mission for 85% of the genome. By 2021, the project was complete for all but .3%, and by January of 2022, it was 100% complete.)

**** Scholars of Sanskrit and Hinduism have pointed out that a more correct interpretation than the word “death” would have been “world-destroying time.” In Hinduism’s non-linear concept of time, both creation and dissolution are in the hands of the divine. None of our human actions ever make a difference in that.

*****  The most powerful greenhouse gas — sulphur hexafluoride (SF6) has a global heating potential 26,000 times greater than that of carbon dioxide, and it remains in the atmosphere heating up the planet for more than 3,000 years. The widespread use of SF6 in the electrical industry is in the prevention of short circuits, fires, and other electrical accidents, but the leaks of SF6 amount to their own disastrous “accident.” In the EU alone in 2017, leaks of SF6 summed to the equivalent of having an additional 1.3 million cars in operation on EU roadways.

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One thought on “Fusion is the Answer. Are We Asking the Right Question?

  1. Lynne thank you so much for taking the time and making the effort. It really was helpful to understand this huge project. Even more, I appreciate your thoughts in conclusion. I think your feelings about our inability to come to terms with how we live on this earth is right at the heart of the whole “moonshot.” I want to think about this some more, but to be truthful, I’m not hopeful about this potential at all. I want to forward your post to Cheryl if that’s ok with you.

    Sent from my iPad


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