Can Fusion Solve the Climate Change Problem?

Photo courtesy Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory

Can Fusion Solve the Climate Change Problem?

Written: July 2002

The frequency, duration, and strength of storms, flooding, and forest fires are increasing, as we see every day in the news. Experts are predicting things will get worse, a lot worse, unless the countries of the world take aggressive action. Even previous conservative naysayers are changing their views on the situation. Most of the debates are over except for what aggressive actions should be taken. The short term energy situation has been exacerbated by the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

The focus item is to reduce the emissions of CO2 into the atmosphere. One of the tools to accomplish the reduction is the use of renewable energy. Renewable energy is energy from sources which naturally replenish themselves. Although limited in the amount of energy available per unit of time, renewable resources are inexhaustible in duration. In addition to wind and solar, the types of renewable energy sources include biomass, hydroelectric power, geothermal energy, nuclear energy, and ocean wave power

Looking at the big picture, about 30 percent of the world’s electricity comes from renewables. The demand for energy is growing fast and renewables are growing fast. Nuclear power has struggled but new technology may make it a key renewable.

Two additional renewable energy sources are on the horizon, hydrogen and fusion. Some are extolling the virtues of hydrogen fuel cells as an alternative source of electrical power. The fuel cell operates quite differently than a traditional battery. It generates electrical current from a chemical reaction between hydrogen and oxygen. The oxygen comes from the air. Hydrogen is compressed, stored in a tank on board a car or truck, and is replenished at a filling station. As of January 2021, there were 45 publicly accessible hydrogen refueling stations in the US, 43 of which were located in California. Unlike a battery, a fuel cell creates exhaust, but the exhaust is simply the result of the reaction between hydrogen and oxygen. The exhaust is water. Hydrogen has been the fuel of the future for decades, always promising to deliver huge benefits in about five years. The potential is great, but we need to see more breakthroughs.

Fusion is a reaction in which two or more atomic nuclei are combined to form one or more different atomic nuclei and subatomic particles. The result of the reaction is the release of energy. Tremendous amounts of energy, enough to supply the world with unlimited renewable energy with no carbon emissions and no radioactive waste. Research is underway in more than 50 countries. Billions have been invested by the U.S. government for its energy labs plus venture investments in 35 startups. The startups all claim to have fusion figured out and deployment is just around the corner. Based on results to date, widespread skepticism is justified.

The Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory announced a key achievement in fusion research recently. One hundred ninety-two giant lasers were focused onto a target the size of a BB which resulted in what the laboratory described as, “a hot-spot the diameter of a human hair, generating more than 10 quadrillion watts of fusion power for 100 trillionths of a second.” The development is being cheered by industry watchers, but there is still a long way to go before fusion will be commercially viable. The 100 trillionths of a second is not very long, but it spurred a burst of optimism for fusion scientists.

Zap Energy, a Seattle based fusion energy start-up working on a new, low-cost path to producing electricity. Research projects to date have been questionable but Markoff said that the fear of accelerating climate change is increasing interest and funding, and may change the game. Zap researchers say their fusion design will be orders of magnitude less expensive than competing systems and cost roughly the same as traditional nuclear power.

I hope Zap or one of the other few dozen startups focused on fusion have a big breakthrough, but I am not holding my breath. In my opinion, even the significant venture investments being made is not sufficient. As much as I believe in startups, I think it will take a country to put its resources behind fusion development. That country may turn out to be China.

China is investing one trillion dollars in a nuclear fusion reactor project called EAST (Experimental Advanced Superconducting Tokamak). China’s “artificial sun” has already set a new world record after superheating charged atomic particles to 158 million degrees Fahrenheit, five times hotter than the sun. Live Science reported, “The achievement brings scientists a small yet significant step closer to the creation of a source of near-unlimited clean energy.”

An even bigger fusion project is currently being built in Marseille, France. The project is called the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER), and it is set to be the world’s largest fusion reactor. The effort is a collaboration between 35 countries including every state in the European Union, the U.K., China, India and the U.S. The fusion reactor is expected to come online in 2025, and it will provide scientists a solid basis to proceed with harnessing star power on Earth.