Can Fusion Energy Reset the Future for Our Species and Planet?
By Roger Weber
Amid 2022’s countless stories of varied import and legacy - Russia invades Ukraine, Roe v. Wade overturned, Artemis orbits the moon, Elon Musk buys Twitter, inflation rages across the world, the “red wave” that never materialized, and, well, Johnny Depp and Amber Heard sue each other - it’s possible that December’s announcement of a major leap in the development of fusion energy is the only one that will have lasting impacts a century from now.
The announcement from the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory in California that scientists have for the first time successfully produced positive energy from a nuclear fusion experiment has been downplayed as a mere milestone on a decades-long quest to achieve sustainable fusion energy. But should that quest continue on its current exponential trajectory, the end result will be the most transformational invention of all time, with impacts so gargantuan on the future of our species they can hardly be described.
Technically, fusion is the process of fusing atoms together, with energy garnered from heat that results when they ignite. In this particular experiment, scientists sought a reaction between deuterium and tritium, an exceedingly rare isotope of hydrogen. They beamed 192 laser beams off the inner walls of a tiny cylinder, depositing energy. X-rays from the wall of the cylinder squeezed the fuel in a tiny capsule, causing it to ignite. For the first time ever, the fuel in the capsule stayed hot, dense, and round enough, and positive energy resulted - about enough to power a few tea kettles.
It may not sound like a lot, but it’s a reaction that if escalated many times over, could create a level of exponential power generation that could ultimately self-sustain, much in the way the sun has endured as a burning mass powering our solar system for billions of years. The goal ultimately is to source clean, limitless energy with virtually no negative externalities. If we get there, fusion energy will be a sort of miracle cure - endless energy to power everything, with its only inputs isotopes of hydrogen, the most common element in the universe. Much like most technological inventions, slow progress yields eventual faster progress and eventually rapid progress. Fusion energy is starting to turn that corner.
A world powered by fusion energy would put to bed so many of our present debates around resources. While our politics takes many angles, so much of it ultimately surrounds the questions of how we will provide the resources - energy, water, food, and the like - to power a world significantly greater in population today than a century ago, with greater demands per capita, all without killing our planet. Today that resourcing is sourced primarily from fossil fuels - oil, coal, and natural gas - that despite all of our investments in renewables continue to power the overwhelming majority of activities across the planet. Nearly everyone acknowledges that this is not sustainable - in the long run, to make the equation balance, we’ll either need to shift energy sources, or power down our species.
Advances in fusion energy might be the only serious answer to a question to which extensive debate, hand-wringing, and financial sacrifice has yielded only modest shifts to date. While politicians talk about the power of wind, solar and other forms of renewable energy, these energy sources have meager potential to do the job that fossil fuels are doing today. Meanwhile most discourse around saving the planet dabbles primarily in demand-side virtue signaling - plastic bag bans, low-flow fixtures and paper straw requirements that are more about making politicians feel powerful and people feel the inconvenience of sacrifice than anything that resembles an even remotely viable re-balance to sustaining the energy needed to power contemporary lifestyles. Most odiously, the most sanctimonious and pessimistic advocates have sought to close the gap by advocating population control or the decimation of modern society back to a stone-age level of resource consumption per capita. Together, these approaches oscillate from un-serious to unethical.
The promise that fusion energy could ultimately quell the diatribes of legions of self-righteous busy-bodies with a real and viable solution to the resourcing woes of the planet is a prospect seemingly too good to be true. And maybe it is. Not only would it generate the freedom to invest in limitless transport to power the goods and services we already consume, but it would also open the floodgates to limitless human activity, as well as limitless human travel into the cosmos, no longer limited by the combustive potential of fossil fuels found beneath the earth’s surface, and no longer constrained by the pressure to conserve through through inconvenience. For all of human history wars have been fought over access to resources. Most of us can’t even fathom a future in which the daily gnashing over the future of fossil fuels isn’t at the heart of endless conferences and regulations. In a fusion future, the regulator class would need to transition its focus, though we can be sure they’d find plenty of new venues.
How do we get from fusion that powers a few tea kettles to the comic book version of fusion that powers limitless human activity across the universe? Perhaps the same way we advanced from zero into a world in which each of us holds greater computing power in our pockets than existed in the entire world a century ago. A few more researchers and a few more scientists dedicated collectively to building on each other’s advances, with a dash of patience.
Getting there will take more kids who want to work at the Livermore Laboratory, and perhaps fewer who aspire to be influencers and athletes, or are addicted to TikTok. Yes, the incentives matter, and it’s something to take seriously as even things as vapid as college football are upping compelling financial incentives for aspiring young people to shirk more energy-intensive fields. Fusion energy is the coolest thing I’ve seen come out of science in my lifetime, however - perhaps rivaled by our return voyage to the moon this past fall - so I certainly hope it’s something young people find cool too. If this can’t convince them to pick science over football, we need to find a way to get them there.
We have a lot of people on the planet today, and a lot of them are moving into productive industries with greater communication power than we’ve ever had as a species. There may be pessimists out there who see humanity as a net drain on our planet, but it’s time to brush them aside and put a dash of faith in the power of humanity to create our way into the future. Fusion energy is the great human experiment for this century, so power up the lasers and let’s get cooking.
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