A couple of weeks ago we featured a piece by Edward Chancellor on climate change which ended on a bit of a worrying note – “To kick the addiction to fossil fuels, as mankind must, and at the same time maintain high standards of living, new technologies are desperately needed – less resource-intensive batteries with greater storage capacity and more efficient low-emission energy sources. But the next generation of small-scale nuclear plants won’t be up and running for years. And despite recent advances, nuclear fusion won’t be ready for at least a decade. In the meantime, investors should prepare for a rough ride.”
This piece in the Mint by Jaspreet Bindra agrees with Chancellor and many others that nuclear fusion is perhaps the only way out for our planet. But Bindra gives us hope citing the recent breakthroughs in fusion technology (the 3L&3S featured one a while ago). First, a bit of fundamentals about fusion:
“Stephen Hawkings perhaps felt the same when he said, “I would like nuclear fusion to become a practical power source. It would provide an inexhaustible supply of energy, without pollution or global warming.” Nuclear fusion is not a new concept, scientists have known about it since Einstein’s times, and it is the phenomena that powers our Sun. As Anjana Ahuja writes in the Financial Times (on.ft.com/3Ef6Auo): “The fireball at the heart of our solar system is powered by fusion energy. The crushing pressures in the sun’s core squeeze hydrogen nuclei together so powerfully that they overcome their natural repulsion and fuse. These nuclear clinches generate larger particles with masses that are not quite the sum of their parts. The missing mass becomes energy, a fiery embodiment of Einstein’s equation E=mc2. The equation shows that in terms of energy production, a tiny bit of mass goes a long way thanks to the colossal multiplier of c, the speed of light (300,000km per second), squared.” Fusion is not the same as fission, where the nucleus of an atom splits into two or more smaller nuclei, releasing the vast amounts of energy holding them together, thus powering nuclear reactors and thermonuclear bombs. Fusion, which uses widely available chemicals like deuterium and tritium, can theoretically extract an energy equivalent of a million gallons of oil, from one glass of these! This can produce 9 million KWH of electricity, enough to power your house for some 800 years.”
However, the realisation of the potential is not new. Attempts to create fusion as a practical source of energy have been underway for decades now to no avail as the key bottleneck has been that “the energy used to make this happen exceeded the energy released, defeating the purpose and making the process ‘hot’ and not ‘cold’ fusion”. Bindra then cites examples of recent breakthroughs:
“A recent FT article (on.ft.com/3rtRrlh ) by Wilson and Bott describes excitement over fusion energy experiments among startups. A Chinese Tokamak sustained a fusion reaction at 120 million degree Celsius for a record 101 seconds. The National Ignition Facility in the US created huge excitement by using 192 lasers to generate a fusion reaction that came the closest ever so far to achieve net energy, where the energy produced was about 70% of what was used, and much greater than earlier attempts. The next aim is to reach “break even”, with as much energy produced as used up.
Fusion energy startups are burgeoning, the Fusion Industry Association estimates 35 of them, and growing. Bill Gates, Peter Theil and Jeff Bezos are investing in them; about $5 billion of venture capital has been deployed. A recent startup, Commonwealth Fusion raised $1.8 billion, while Sam Altman put $375 million into another called Helion. Not all of them will succeed, but even if one does, it will gives us unlimited clean fuel to power our planet forever, much like the sun has been doing.”

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