Fusion confusion

The U.S. Department of Energy's Lawrence Livermore Lab (LLL) in Northern California has recently gotten a lot of attention.  It was just announced that they finally fused some hydrogen atoms and got more energy out than they put in — a net positive result.  Drew Magary, writing for the San Francisco Chronicle, throws a little cold water on the event by adding that the lasers causing the fusion reaction were powered by electricity generated at way less than perfect efficiency.

Throwing more cold water, I was told by someone who worked on the facility in question that they already had a net positive event about fifteen years ago.  I suggested that they might be tooting their horn now in order to get a bump in funding.  He agreed.

What's being left out of the discussion is the commercial viability of the whole concept.  Some years ago, Scientific American ran an article that compared nuclear power generation to that from natural gas.  Building a natural gas generating station is fairly cheap, leaving the cost of fuel as the primary expense for producing electricity.  A nuclear plant is particularly expensive to build — while the cost of enriched uranium is insignificant when calculating the bottom line.  The amortization of the construction cost over the life span of the facility is the primary expense for nuclear...which is still fairly cost-competitive with gas, coal, and hydro.

This brings us to the possibly immense cost of building a fusion power plant.  Magary also mentions the continuing twenty-year time horizon reset.  When projecting the real-world implementation of fusion energy, the goal posts are constantly being moved farther and farther away.  Now that we know that controlled fusion is possible, making it economically feasible is the true challenge.  This is roughly similar to the medieval quest for the philosophers' stone, where the serious scientists of the day were working feverishly to find the right combination of substances to make gold out of lead and achieve eternal life.

Many articles on this subject include reference to the way stars are the result of nuclear fusion.  They don't have lasers heating up hydrogen atoms.  They rely on gravity.  Vast clouds of hydrogen coalesced into denser and denser formations.  Eventually, the intensified pull of gravity caused the hydrogen atoms to fuse into helium atoms — thus giving off light, heat, and various forms of radiation.

Back to the Livermore Laboratory.  This is the progeny of Edward Teller, the father of the hydrogen bomb.  Lawrence was the inventor of the cyclotron, the atomic accelerator, first made from lab glass and sealing wax at U.C. Berkeley, where there is also a Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory and a Lawrence Hall of Science.

It certainly would be nice if fusion were commercially viable — absent artificial government subsidies.  And that is really possible.  But it is far from inevitable.  Unlike Edison's light bulb and Tesla's alternating current, fusion energy is not anywhere near ready for prime time.  Yes, the desire is there...but the reality is waiting.

Image: AndrzejRembowski via Pixabay, Pixabay License.

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