Fusion Energy’s Dreamers, Hucksters, and Loons
By Charles Seife
Just a few weeks ago, a bunch of fusion scientists used South Korean money to begin designing a machine that nobody really thinks will be built and that probably wouldn’t work if it were. This makes the machine only slightly more ludicrous than the one in France that may or may not eventually get built and, if and when it’s finally finished, certainly won’t do what it was initially meant to do. If you’ve guessed that the story of fusion energy can get a bit bizarre, you’d be right.
For one thing, the history of fusion energy is filled with crazies, hucksters, and starry-eyed naifs chasing after dreams of solving the world’s energy problems. One of the most famous of all, Martin Fleischmann, died earlier this year. Along with a colleague, Stanley Pons, Fleischmann thought that he had converted hydrogen into helium in a beaker in his laboratory, never mind that if he had been correct he would have released so much energy that he and his labmates would have been fricasseed by the radiation coming out of the device. Fleischmann wasn’t the first—Ronald Richter, a German expat who managed to entangle himself in the palace intrigues of Juan Peron, beat Fleischmann by nearly four decades—and the latest schemer, Andrea Rossi, won’t be the last.
The reason’s easy to see: On paper, fusion energy has almost unlimited potential. A fusion reaction releases an extraordinary amount of energy by slamming together light atoms, such as hydrogen, to make heavier ones, such as helium. (Fission is essentially the opposite: breaking apart heavy atoms, such as uranium, to make lighter ones.) Fusion is the same process that powers the sun—and it’s so efficient that we’d have enough atomic fuel on Earth to satisfy our civilization’s need for energy for, essentially, forever. The problem is that it’s really hard to slam those atoms together hard enough. You need incredibly high temperatures, tens or hundreds of millions of degrees Celsius, so that the atoms are moving fast enough to get the reaction going. But as you heat your fuel up, you have to keep it contained. A 100-million-degree plasma wants to explode in all directions, but if you’re going to keep the reaction going, you have to keep it bottled up. What do you make the bottle out of?
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