One of the most consistent findings of years of audience research at TPM is that people in education and especially higher education (college and graduate) are our largest single audience. That’s certainly true of representation vs the population at large but it’s also true (though definitions became more complicated here) in absolute terms. Perhaps this isn’t surprising given that the site was founded by a lapsed academic. But among many other things it means that there are quite a lot of physicists among you. And you’ve been helping me with lots of feedback about this fusion announcement apparently coming shortly from the Livermore Laboratory.
For the non-physicists and innumerate among you, everything I’ve heard confirms the gist of my second post on this from this morning: this is, unfortunately, not a game changer for the possible future of fusion as a source of population-level power generation. The key is to distinguish between two questions: a breakthrough achievement in scientific and engineering terms? Yes. A breakthrough in terms of fusion produced energy being any more part of your future than it was a week ago? No. Sadly, no. But still no.
Among highly knowledgable people there is of course a great range of opinion. There are experts who think fusion-energy is plausible in the 2030s or 2040s. There are others who think that fusion will never be a population level source of energy in any remotely recognizable future. The folks in that latter camp, as far as I can tell, tend to be less focused on the theoretical questions of energy generation than what I guess would be called the technical, materials and engineering issues involved – basically all the technical challenges in taking a huge array of machinery that might allow you to get a tiny net gain of energy and the ability to make something like this generate lots of energy on a constant basis indefinitely. This isn’t a really hardcore barbecue after all. This is serious nuclear stuff (technical term). So the materials you use to build the contraption tend to break down fairly quickly under the strain of all the forces involved.
I am entirely incapable of litigating these disagreements and controversies. All I can confidently tell you is that having head from a number of physicists on the topic I’m left with the impression this is a topic about the distant future.
There are a few other points that are notable that I’ve learned about.
One is that there’s an increasing amount of private sector investment in this, which is pretty notable in itself and gives some sense that there are at least people willing to pony up money who think this is real and not many decades into the future. There’s also a lot of government investment in things like the new infrastructure bill. Sustaining that kind of investment means keeping up expectations and maybe creating a bit of hype. That doesn’t mean anyone’s lying about anything. But everyone wants funding. Everyone wants to create buzz or getting everyone as excited as they are. That is something to consider in the larger conversation we’re likely to see tomorrow.
A point skeptics and critics make goes something like this. We know solar and geothermal power work. (Solar is fusion after all, just with the plant very far away.) So if we’re going to be spending billions in super cutting edge research, doesn’t it make more sense to put that money into taking those forms of power generation to the next level?
Again, I can’t litigate any of this. But they are interesting questions to consider.
I also don’t want to give the impression that I’m against funding this research. Far from it. I mean, I’m a guy who remains disappointed we’re not doing more basic research on warp drive. That’s where I’m coming from. I’m all for funding lots of basic and applied research.
My takeaway is that net gain of energy isn’t quite the turning point moment I had understood it to be. Just as important, this is not net gain of energy, except in the specific context of the interaction between the fuel and the laser. It doesn’t include the energy required to sustain the whole factory of hardware that makes that interaction possible. In that critical, practical sense it’s not close to a net gain of energy.
So important incremental advance toward something likely decades off into the future rather than a turning point breakthrough.
Please keep your physics emails coming all you physicists. What do I need to know?