Jul 3, 2019
Dear Science: We Want Cold Fusion And We Want It Now
Editor’s note: The following is the opinion of the author. Some of us don’t really want cold fusion at all. We would be very happy with moar windmills.
Author’s note: The author would be happy to call this hot fusion, cold fusion, controlled fusion or generic acronym. The author found herself confused by the word salad going on.
Fusion technology seems to be its own worst enemy. For every breakthrough, there’s a corresponding story that makes the process appear to be a mythical boondoggle that can’t exist. Which maybe it can’t, but it’s not like it’s the scientific equivalent of searching for Bigfoot (That’s right Animal Planet, we’re lookin’ at you — “Finding Bigfoot”? Really?)
Nuclear fusion is a real thing. That’s how the Sun works. You know this from They Might Be Giants.
Not only is fusion a real thing, it’s a thing we humans can do. Just ask Teller, Ulam or anyone hanging out around the Marshall Islands back in 1952 when we detonated Ivy Mike – the first fusion bomb.
Or, ask Jamie Edwards, the 13-year-old who just created his own fusion reactor. That’s right. A child. Created a fusion reactor. WTF?
So, what is nuclear fusion, if you skipped physics? Nuclear fusion happens when hydrogen isotopes are heated to extremely high temperatures, becoming plasma and overcoming the electrostatic forces that would ordinarily repel the positively charged nuclei. The two nuclei fuse, release a shit ton of energy, scientifically speaking, and create a helium atom and a neutron.
No radioactive waste here. Sounds great, right? It’s the holy grail: unlimited, clean energy from an abundant and renewable natural resource. But there are two problems that must first be solved:
Problem 1: the amount of energy we need to create a fusion reaction is ridiculous. The temperature required to achieve fusion is 270,000,032° Fahrenheit. And that takes a lot of energy. More energy than we can currently capture from the fusion reaction, which leads to…
Problem 2: fusion creates a stupid amount of energy. The H-bomb was 500 times more powerful than fission weapons. How can we contain that power, using it to both create the next fusion reaction and create electricity?
And, that’s what scientists have been working on. Resolving the inefficiency and finding a way to contain that nonsense amount of energy. But they don’t want to call it cold fusion anymore. They would prefer we all call it LENR: low-energy nuclear reactions. Or something else entirely. This is less fun to say, and no science fiction movies will want to talk about LENR.
So, why the name change? Well, you might remember the cold fusion scandal of the late 1980s. You don’t? What’s wrong with you? Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischmann announced that they had achieved cold fusion: fusion of nuclei at room temperature through a chemical reaction. Unfortunately, other scientists were unable to replicate the experiment. Pons and Fleischmann weren’t crackpot scientists. They were at the top of their field, and they weren’t the only group working on this type of chemical reaction. In fact, it’s thought that the reason the pair went public prematurely was the pressure to win priority and patents over another group of researchers.
To win the priority battle, the pair took to the airwaves, instead of peer-reviewed journals – announcing their success at a press conference. The news media jumped on the promise of “free” energy, creating a feeding frenzy when other scientists refuted their claims. The United States Department of Energy reviewed the work and essentially pulled funding for further cold fusion research.
Luckily, since 1989, there has been a hell of a lot of success in the field of low-energy nuclear reactions even though we all agree that is still a dumb name. Magnetic confinement, laser confinement and electrostatic confinement. All the confinements! The principle behind all of these techniques is to confine the reaction and use the energy from the first reaction to create a new reaction.
Just last month, scientists at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory announced that using laser confinement, they had captured more energy from a fusion reaction then they had used to create it. BAZINGA! They have yet to create a self-sustaining reaction, but what the fuck, this is one hell of a breakthrough. Did it make national news? Not really. Why? Don’t know! Whatever. Just trust us this is a big fucking deal. Seriously, check out those sweet-ass lasers!
And then, BAM! Science (the AAAS journal, not the field) broke the story that ITER is in trouble. ITER is an international fusion reactor project. It’s basically the big daddy of energy research. The project is intending to use magnetic confinement to stabilize the plasma and create a larger energy output than input. But there’s a problem. The facility was originally supposed to be completed in 2016, but the new timeline is unclear. The costs have tripled, topping $22 billion in US dollars.
But, let us be clear: this is not the same problem that plagued Pons and Fleischmann. ITER has a management problem. There’s not a flawed scientific theory. Instead, the project is facing the same problems you face when you hire a contractor to renovate your house and he messes it up and tells you it will take an additional 6 months and $50,000 to do the kitchen.
So, what’s the take home message? Research into fusion power is not a fool’s errand. LENR might not be as sexy as cold fusion: the research is expensive, it’s taken a long time and it’s still not producing commercial results, but it really is the holy grail of energy research.
If we can solve the associated problems, it would change the world. Not like Facebook changed the world, but like dwarf wheat saved India from an impending famine. Except, not just India. Or the United States. Or France. The entire geopolitical landscape would change. Dramatically. And quickly. So pull it together fusion. Stop making yourself look stupid, because we need you to be a thing so awesome that even politicians can understand how important it is to give you delicious money.