If you’re like me, you’ve been at least slightly depressed lately. It’s not just the political stuff or the racism. Yes, that is bad. It’s not just the massive inequality that exists in our economy. I hate that too. Yet there is another thing that’s been bringing me down lately. It’s quite frankly the fact that we are flushing the Earth down the toilet. The current administration, in all its greed and ignorance, has rolled back or eliminated over 80 environmental laws aimed at protecting people and nature and preventing corporations from polluting the air and water.
Of course, you must be familiar with the environmental movement. You are probably familiar with the Paris Accords, and how the US, under its current administration, fled from them. Then there are those EPA regulation rollbacks, continued burning of fossil fuels, and the fact that we are still not on target to beat the “do or die” recommendations of the IPCC and other environmental groups regarding global warming. There isn’t a lot to be positive about at the present time. Yet there is hope on the horizon if we are smart enough to grasp it.
There are still very realistic possibilities for harnessing wind and solar energy… solar panel efficiency has improved steadily over the last decade, and there is reason to believe this respectable trend (despite what that Michael Moore documentary said) will continue:
With increased battery efficiency (another scientific development in the making), we should be able to harness these clean energy sources and store their power for times of need. It appears these options are performing well:
Thus, the current options we have in place for renewable energy are suitable. Yet I, as a scientist, am interested in a much more powerful solution for our clean energy needs. This solution could provide massive amounts of power even in the most extreme of times (excessive cloudiness, droughts, calm weather with no wind, nighttime, etc.).
And the solution I (and many others turn to) is fusion.
For those of you who are not familiar with nuclear fusion, it is basically the opposite of fission. With fission, we are trying to split an atom apart. With fusion, we are attempting to merge or fuse two atoms (such as hydrogen) together to make a bigger atom. The website at ITER (international fusion project) has a very good description of this process in case you are interested:
Fusion is a more elegant process than we are normally used to as human beings. In the past, we have generally proven that we’re great at destroying things (such as in the case of bombs, utilizing nuclear fission)… but not as good at creating things (such as in nuclear fusion). Unfortunately, the impatience of the media and society makes this difficult, as people demand answers or innovations almost immediately and without much effort or expense. Scientists have made solid, steady progress toward fusion for several decades, but the critics continued to blast the efforts as fruitless. Recently, however, we were struck with a little bit of good news:
Over the past two to three years, there have been many such technical developments. In a hot plasma gas, the conditions necessary to achieve fusion, turbulent flow can cause heat bursts to halt the fusion reaction and attack the walls of the reactor. This challenge, like many others in science, must first be fully understood before we can devise ways to counter it. It is difficult to tackle a phenomena if you don’t know what its trigger mechanism is.
Thankfully, the researchers at Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL), as well as many other research facilities around the world, are accomplishing that. Now that we know that interacting waves, coming together and exchanging energy, causes the ‘crash’ or burst of heat at the edge of the plasma, real-time solutions that allow better control over the entire process can be devised:
We cannot give up on fusion. It was a very difficult nut to crack, perhaps greatly underestimated. Yet through the dedicated work of many scientific and engineering researchers globally, we may be close to cracking this nut.
Science advances exponentially… it may be a significant amount of time before a breakthrough is achieved, yet once it is finally achieved, that area of research takes off, taking us to places we never even dreamed possible. This has happened throughout history (witness the 1903 first flight of the Wright Brothers, culminating in a Moon landing only six decades later). I firmly believe we will finally achieve commercial fusion power by 2035. And that will give us the clean, near unlimited energy we have always dreamed about.
Peace and goodwill…