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Fusion Breakthrough Deals Malthusians Another Blow


Malthus may have just been blasted by the focused power of 192 laser beams.

Scientists at the California-based Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory made a huge breakthrough in nuclear fusion technology late last month. For the first time, a fusion reaction reportedly produced more energy than it consumed.

Nuclear fusion has long been seen as energy’s holy grail; it’s the process that powers the Sun, and harnessing it could give humanity unlimited amounts of clean energy. But to paraphrase the quip about Brazil, fusion has seemed like the “energy source of the future” for a long time now. The BBC reports:

The BBC understands that during an experiment in late September, the amount of energy released through the fusion reaction exceeded the amount of energy being absorbed by the fuel—the first time this had been achieved at any fusion facility in the world. […]

[This] latest achievement has been described as the single most meaningful step for fusion in recent years, and demonstrates NIF is well on its way towards the coveted target of ignition and self-sustaining fusion.

There’s still a long way to go. The fusion reaction will need to release many times more energy than it consumes to be viable on a commercial scale. But this is still worth getting excited about. Figuring out fusion would be a game-changer, and breakthroughs like this one remind us of the dangers of predicting the future based on current technology. The rate of technological change is accelerating, and the only ones who stand to lose are the prophets of doom. More news like this, please.

[National Ignition Facility preamplifier image courtesy of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory]

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  • f1b0nacc1

    I remain skeptical. They haven’t hit anything close to a commercially viable power output yet, they don’t have a workable power-plant design (the current liquid lithium neutron absorbing blanket concept makes Chernobyl and Fukushima look like models of safety), and the costs are astronomical. I don’t support massive government boondogles like subsidising unworkable solar or wind plants, fusion is (as yet) in the same category. Research, fine, but they aren’t even close to ready for prime time.
    Fusion power has been 10 years away for the last 50 years…call me when it arrives…

    • Bruno_Behrend

      You clearly know more about the science than I do, but it’s better to bet with the optimists.

      Your post reminds me of the 1890s-1900 Scientific American article about flight, arguing that if the great Col. Langley couldn’t develop flight with $50K, it was entirely unbelievable that a couple of bike makers could.

      There is a great exhibit at the EAA museum in Oskosh with headlines like “Man will never faster than 500 mph.”

      We’ll get fusion eventually assuming we even need it. We might learn to terraform Jupiter into Ringworld first.

      • f1b0nacc1

        I don’t doubt that we will get fusion power (take a look at Polywell Fusion if you want to see something with a chance for early success), but we have been promised that it is just around the corner for a very long time now. I remain skeptical.
        Regarding the naysayers and those terribly clever bicycle mechanics in Ohio, often the naysayers are right too you know…where are the flying cars, for instance?
        The problem isn’t that fusion isn’t possible (clearly it is, as anyone who has ever watched Dr. Strangelove will tell you), but rather that it is not yet practical. It isn’t a scientific problem, it is a technological one. That sort of problem often takes time….

        • Bruno_Behrend

          Flying cars are coming, now that quad-rotors are combining with instant adjustment software/hardware

          We agree. It’s just that the optimists end up right in the long run.

          • f1b0nacc1

            As has been said before, “In the long run, we are all dead”…
            You are no doubt correct that at some point this will all pan out (speed that day!), but I do suspect that we are looking at a fairly long wait for that….
            On the other hand, my Google Fiber is about to be hooked up…

  • crocodilechuck

    Fusion: Its only forty years away!

    (from 1959…… infinity and beyond……. 😉

  • DarkstarSF

    Malthusians will claim that the heat exhaust from fusion reactors will add to global warming.

    • f1b0nacc1

      They already do….
      When writing about ‘peace’ protestors, Glenn Reynolds (the Instapundit) often says “They are not antiwar, they are just on the other side”. I believe that a similar comment could be made about modern “environmentalists”

  • ljgude

    Polywell fusion is also being worked on. Quite quietly. It’s main developer, Robert Bussard, did theoretical research for the Navy for decades and did achieve some promising results before he died. He was defunded toward the end of his life and gave a quite pointed talk at Google in 2006 which revealed much of the technology.

    Bussard makes much the same point that f1bOnacc1 does that fusion is 10% physics and 90% engineering. The current breakthrough is still way short of getting to the 10% point. Malthusians may not always be wrong but they always assume that major breakthroughs wont entirely change the way things work.

  • Nick Bidler

    it might not be practical yet, but the jump from ‘it might happen in theory’ to ‘proof of concept’ is not insignificant.

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