I suspect many remember the second “Spider-Man” movie where Peter Parker has given up on crimefighting because he lost the love of his life. A famous scientist, Dr. Otto Octavius, has a failed fusion experiment disaster that turns him into Doctor Octopus, a super-villain with four tentacles and hands. Maybe you remember the DeLorean in the “Back to the Future” movies with a flux capacitor and a Mr. Fusion for power.
For many, the concept and process of fusion – the forceful merging of lighter atoms into heavier atoms with an enormous release of energy – has been relegated to the realm of science fiction. We may have known about much of the experimental fusion work performed by several international research institutions, but mostly with just a feeling of curiosity or, from the movies, good science fiction. Fusion as an energy source was just too long of a reach for any predictable term.
Congratulations and kudos to the team of the National Ignition Facility at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory! In a research demonstration milestone, using an array of 192 fantastically focused and precision lasers, this team produced more energy – 3.15 megajoules (about 2,986 BTUs) – than it took to initiate the reaction, 2.05 megajoules (about 1,943 BTUs). The fusion target is a one-centimeter-long metal cylinder containing a deuterium-tritium target capsule about the size of a BB – roughly two millimeters – within the cylinder. The lasers interact with the cylinder creating amazingly intense x-rays that react with the capsule outer coating, generating intense pressure and temperature, allowing the normal repulsive actions of the nuclei to be exceeded and fusion to occur. The fusion size/volume is about the size of a human hair. The fusion reaction lasts about 100 trillionths of a second. This produced a net heat energy gain of almost 1,050 BTUs.
I am forced to think about Moore’s Law. We modify and extend Moore’s Law to almost everything technological and certainly should do so when considering fusion energy. The NIF, including all support facilities, is enormous in size even though the target chamber itself is only about 10 meters in diameter.
Even though we are far along in developing the demonstration of this technology, it is still in its practical infancy. Assuming a doubling of scale-reduction every two years and realizing we are still a long way from technology deployment (there are arguments about the technology readiness level the NIF currently represents, taking nothing away from their incredible achievements), we are still decades away from a fusion power plant the size of traditional fission reactors or combustion units. Many believe, while lauding this accomplishment, that it comes too late to be touted as a solution for climate change and that deployment, while certainly beneficial for needed energy, will not help the current climate concerns.
Maybe, but like any new major technology, its potential for benefit is wide open for smart and wise people to utilize. I believe it can never be too late. Additionally, a fusion device is a heat generator, much like any current fossil or nuclear system, and I have to admit, makes for a very interesting energy-density and utilization discussions, best had over libations.
As energy geoscientists, and as those trained to understand our planet and our neighboring planets, we should be excited as we keep a weather eye on the future horizon. Our talents in exploration and data synthesis, broad and detailed interpretation, four-dimensional thinking, and especially in the blending of all sciences related to our planet and others, are a definitive need for the modern, future, global world. All energy sources – oil and gas, coal, nuclear, hydro, wind, tidal, geothermal, solar and fusion will be needed. I can envision future fusion systems that use hydrogen from natural gas after the gas has been used and hydrogen atoms are free and the carbon has been captured for use. Why not?
Early in my geological career, I had my hands inside of fusion weapons. These weapons were being dismantled but still had all active elements. The fear of the power of that fusion process was palpable, and very fearful, and you could not help but think of the enormous instantaneous release of energy that was possible. We could initiate a fusion reaction but not control it – something only useful for destruction. Now, there is a predictable, not so far-term use of fusion for the benefit of all. I am looking forward to us geologists, by any specialty or name, embracing our role in this future.