A few months ago I posted a hopeful note about the fusion research going at the National Ignition Facility at Lawrence Livermore Laboratory in California. I was impressed with a speech I’d heard by lab front man Ed Moses. He’s very slick and tells a good story. But since then I’ve spoken to a real honest-to-goodness fusion physicist from MIT who painted a convincing picture that Moses is more snake oil salesman than prophet. The only thing likely to come out of the NIF, he says, is bomb research. Sigh. Get your hopes, and see what happens? Fusion is still 30 years away, as always.
Still, it’s an interesting topic. Most physicists acknowledge that, while we find it difficult to manage now, it should become workable at some point (more than 30 mythical years from now, presumably). There’s no magic to it. So we really should keep plugging away at it.
The other day I was lucky enough to get a tour of the fusion reactor at MIT, and the work they’re doing is impressive. I had no idea you could do so much nuclear fusion in the middle of Cambridge. But the people working there don’t have any illusions about cheap fusion power right around the corner. The big new fusion reactor in France called ITER won’t even start doing serious work until well into the 2020s, and it’s still a science machine (as opposed to something that a utility company can buy).
The real problem seems to be the capital-intensive nature of the work. This has plagued nuclear fission too. When even the smallest experiments cost insane amounts of money, you become extremely cautious. Many good ideas never get tried, because you have to put all your effort behind the one idea that is considered most likely to succeed.
Given all this, I was amazed to read an article in Popular Mechanics about a small company in Seattle called Helion Energy. These guys are doing real fusion research in a small company setting, and they appear to be completely legitimate. What they’re doing now is research, and nobody expects it make any big breakthroughs anytime soon, but it’s very encouraging to know that all our bets don’t have to be big.