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Friday, April 17, 2015


Let me give the answer now.  "Experts" speculate that fusion could be commercialized around 2050.  For those totally new to this blog site and energy in general, there are two kinds of nuclear energy, fission and fusion.  Fission occurs when heavy elements such as uranium and plutonium split into lighter elements (left), where part of the mass is converted into energy.  Fusion combines hydrogen, or its isotopes, deuterium and tritium, into something heavier, plus energy (right).

Fusion is cleaner and safer than fission, with a virtually unlimited supply of fuel (millions of years).  While our Sun and all the stars use fusion to produce energy, humanity has only exploded the Hydrogen Bomb (Atomic Bomb uses fission) and is trying to develop pathways toward controlled fusion, primarily through two mechanisms:  Tokamak (donut-shaped concept initiated in Russia), using something called magnetic confinement, as is being constructed at Cadareche in France, and a laser,  being developed at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, in a process of inertial confinement.  

A rough rule of thumb is that an atomic bomb is a thousand times more powerful than any conventional weapon, while a hydrogen bomb is a thousand times more powerful than an atomic bomb.  The atomic bomb over Hiroshima is to the above left, while the Soviet Union's Tsar (hydrogen) Bomba, the largest ever detonated, is to the right.

  • Around 1920 Great Britain suggested the concept.
  • In 1939 German/American Hans Bethe (right) dabbled in how the Sun produces energy, and was awarded a Nobel Prize.
  • In 1946 the United Kingdom patented a fusion reactor.
  • Hydrogen bombs were the focus of development in the 50's, but the Soviet Union talked about the tokamak approach, Princeton University initiated a few fusion reactor experiments, and the Los Alamos National Laboratory began a program.
  • The Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory was formed in the early 50's, and Edward Teller (in the middle with Ernest Lawrence to the left and Herbert York to the right), one of the founders, in 1954 set the tone for a second pathway:  lasers.
  • In 1962, when I graduated from Stanford, the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory suggested laser fusion, only two years after the invention of the laser.
  • General Electric showed a fusion demonstration (right) at the 1964 World's Fair in New York.
  • The Soviet Union in 1968 constructed the first tokamak.
  • In 1974, a real company, KMS in Michigan, achieved the first laser induced fusion in a deuterium-tritium pellet.
  • In 1977 the 20 beam Shiva laser at Livermore became the first megalaser.  I spent time at this laboratory under (way under) Teller working on this effort.
  • Lasers got an uptick in funding during the 80's to scare the Soviet Union.  Some of my colleagues at Livermore suggested Brilliant Pebbles, which became President Ronald Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative.  While the concept using lasers was mostly nonsense, I do give them credit for helping bankrupt the Soviet Union, leading a few years later to the end of the Cold War.
  • In the middle 80's Livermore's NOVA made some progress, while the University of Rochester used frequency tripling to cut the wavelength, a concept I tried to accomplish when I was doing my PhD work on tunable lasers 15 years earlier.
  • Around this time, the first tokamak was constructed in Cadareche, France, which lead to ITER (to be discussed later).
  • In 1989, Martin Fleischmann and Stanley Pons announced their bombshell cold fusion development.  Within a year I was able to hire a cold fusion researcher into the Hawaii Natural Energy Institute.  The field never became viable and Bor Yann Liaw is now a battery/fuel cell expert in an office next to mine on the University of Hawaii campus.
  • In 1997, the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor was announced as the world tokamak experiment  in Cadareche, France.
  • The National Ignition Facility at Livermore has missed targets, but in 2013 did successfully initiate reaction that released more energy than absorbed, but was not net positive when the entire system was considered.  While I hold hopes for the future, the present is a period of introspection.
  • There has been an assortment of deviations and variations, including:
    • bubble fusion, which has generally been discredited
    • Lockheed Martin's Skunk Works (black or high security defense work) built a high beta fusion reactor last year, and hopes to have operational in 2022.  This system shows promise for space exploration.
    • I just communicated with Charles Helsley, president of Fusion Power Corporation, who indicated that funding was close at hand for their Heavy Ion Fusion concept.
As fusion is occurring in every star, surely, it should be a matter of time when controlled fusion is attained on Planet Earth.  The Hydrogen Bomb was step one.  Step two will be net positive.  Yet, can humanity actually commercialize fusion?  We should know around 2050, unless one of those non-conventional visions can surprise.  I still think laser fusion is the most likely pathway, but dream now and then about the reality of cold fusion.


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