Transforming Our Future: The Fusion Solution
For the first time, scientists produced a fusion reaction that resulted in a net energy gain. What does that mean for a clean energy future?
The recent fusion breakthrough made by scientists at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory is a true game-changer for the future of clean power. The process, called internal confinement fusion, has real star power, literally—it uses the same reaction that powers the sun.
According to Carolyn Kuranz, Associate Professor of nuclear engineering at the University of Michigan, “Fusion is a nuclear reaction that combines two atoms to create one or more new atoms with slightly less total mass. The difference in mass is released as energy, as described by Einstein’s famous equation, E = mc2, where energy equals mass times the speed of light squared. Since the speed of light is enormous, converting just a tiny amount of mass into energy–like what happens in fusion–produces a similarly enormous amount of energy.”
Nuclear fusion releases vast amounts of energy without producing toxins like carbon dioxide or other greenhouse gases, unlike fission (the way nuclear power is currently produced), which splits uranium atoms and generates long-lived radioactive waste.
The main byproduct of fusion is helium, an inert, non-toxic gas. Furthermore, there is no risk of a nuclear meltdown with fusion—when the plasma produced during the fusion process cools, the reaction stops.
So, What Now?
In an amazing feat of technology, the scientists at Livermore National Lab utilized 192 giant lasers to zap a small hydrogen plasma pellet, creating approximately 3 megajoules of energy, a factor of 1.5 in energy gain.
Until now, fusion processes required more energy than they generated. But with this landmark discovery, scientists have unleashed a possible pathway to provide humans with bountiful clean energy.
According to the Department of Energy (DOE), nuclear fusion has the potential to produce nearly four million times more energy than traditional fossil fuel resources like gas, oil, and coal, offering the amount of baseload energy necessary for our ever-growing electrical needs (especially as we electrify homes, buildings, and vehicles.)
While the commercial viability of fusion is years—perhaps decades—away, the prospect of this low-cost, no-emissions energy is thrilling.
But time is ticking. Most climate scientists assert that if we’re going to stay under the threshold of 2-degree Celsius temperature rise (or the more ambitious target of 1.5 degrees), we need to reach net-zero global emissions by 2050.
To scale an innovation like nuclear fusion in such a short timeframe, we’re going to need a veritable moonshot with lightspeed scientific and technological advancements. Initial costs and investment risk will be high, gradually dropping over time with economies of scale, ongoing innovation, and increased demand.
According to the Fusion Industry Association, more than 30 companies are working on developing nuclear fusion technology, representing over $4.8 billion in funding. Will that be enough to make fusion dependable, replicable, and cost-effective in time to meet our changing climate needs?
Cure For All Our Ills?
By the end of the century, demand for energy will have tripled under the combined pressure of population growth, increased urbanization, and expanding access to electricity in developing countries.
While the fusion breakthrough adds an entirely new dimension in our quest for a clean energy future, it’s not a total panacea. We have to keep our eye on the ball.
We know the roadmap, which includes:
- Reaching peak emissions by 2025, which is now possible due to advancements in solar, wind, and battery storage technology, as well as heightened financial and political motivation to transition to renewables due to Putin’s war in Ukraine.
- Continued funding for climate-positive solutions, such as CarbonTech innovations like carbon-storing concrete, NatureTech solutions that advance forest conservation, recycled steel, hydrogen infrastructure, water filtration and processing technologies, and regenerative agricultural solutions—all of which create new jobs and cut pollution. Over $850 billion was poured into climate solutions in 2021, equal to the amount of fossil fuel investments during that same timeframe. Investments in climate solutions are expected to exceed fossil fuel investments in 2022 for the first time ever.
- Divesting from fossil fuel companies, which will continue to occur at a quickening pace as the world’s largest banks pull their $1.35 trillion out of this area in the face of mounting stranded asset risk.
- Driving the adoption of science-based targets and aggressive standards for organizations throughout the economy, such as those established by the Science Based Targets Initiative (SBTi): 50% reduction of actual emissions within a decade and 95% or more reduction by 2050.
It’s an exciting time, with ample opportunity for anyone with just a little ambition and imagination.
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