The Fusion Breakthrough Suggests That Maybe Someday We'll Have a Second Sun

Bill McKibben / The New Yorker
The Fusion Breakthrough Suggests That Maybe Someday We'll Have a Second Sun A reason that the breakthrough is causing such hoopla is that it implicitly promises that we could use fusion to run the world in almost its current form. (photo: Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory)

In the meantime, we need to use the sun we’ve already got.

On Tuesday, the Department of Energy is expected to announce a breakthrough in fusion energy: according to early reports, scientists at the government’s Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, in California, have succeeded for the first time in making their complex and expensive machinery produce more power than it uses, if only for an instant. It’s a breakthrough of great significance—in essence, the researchers are learning to build a second sun. And it was greeted with the requisite hosannas—the Washington Post described it as a “holy grail,” a “major milestone in the decades-long, multibillion-dollar quest to develop a technology that provides unlimited, cheap, clean power.”

That it comes with equally requisite caveats does not diminish the glory of the achievement, but they’re important, too. As a fusion expert at the University of Cambridge, in England, told CNN on Monday, “This result is miles away from actual energy gain required for the production of electricity. Therefore, we can say (it) is a success of the science but a long way from providing useful energy.” Among other things, producing this reaction required one of the largest lasers in the world, and the reaction creates neutrons that can destroy the very equipment required to produce it. As the Post put it, “Building devices that are large enough to create fusion power at scale” would “require materials that are extraordinarily difficult to produce.” It is therefore still “at least a decade—maybe decades—away from commercial use.”

Happily, we have a bridge technology that might get us through those decades: it’s the first sun, the one that hangs in the sky above Lawrence Livermore and the rest of the planet. We know how to capture its rays on photovoltaic panels, and we know how to take advantage of the fact that it differentially heats the earth, creating breeze that we can capture in giant turbines. The advantage of this technology is that we’ve long known how to build it—I’m writing these words on a computer powered by a panel on my roof that was installed in 2001—and, indeed, that we can now do so cheaply. During the past few years, the cost of renewable energy dropped below the price of fossil fuels.

Of course, the first sun comes with caveats, too. It inconveniently dips beneath the horizon every night, so there’s a need for batteries to store its power (though they’re also plummeting in cost). And we’ll need to occupy some portion of the earth’s surface (though less than often imagined) with machinery to generate necessary levels of power. That would be both a cost and a benefit, because it would mean that communities around the world would end up with local control of their energy supply. But, since one of these technologies—renewable energy—is ready to go and the other isn’t, the sequencing is pretty clear. Imagine, if everything goes right, a world where, in a quarter-century’s time, we can take down the solar panels and wind turbines we’re now erecting and replace them with elegant fusion reactors. (Or maybe small-scale fission reactors; there have been new developments in this technology, too.) But, if we don’t make that first transition right now, those elegant reactors will be deployed, if at all, on a badly degraded, even broken, planet. Thanks to the blanket of carbon we’ve thrown up, Sun 1 is steadily more dangerous.

A reason that the breakthrough is causing such hoopla is that it implicitly promises that we could use fusion to run the world in almost its current form. It’s centralized power that fits the old model that electricity should move down a one-way grid to its final users, instead of an interlocked web of smaller-scale solar and wind providers. We like the status quo, all else being equal. But that bias shades other new research that might point us in equally fascinating directions. On Monday, for instance, the premier scientific journal, Nature, published an important commentary from several topflight researchers about the idea of “degrowth,” which they explain as follows: “Wealthy economies should abandon growth of gross domestic product (GDP) as a goal, scale down destructive and unnecessary forms of production to reduce energy and material use, and focus economic activity around securing human needs and well-being.” Their analysis looks at everything from reducing debt loads in the Global South to financing public services in wealthy countries. “Addressing the question of how to prosper without growth will require a massive mobilization of researchers in all disciplines, including open-minded economists, social and political scientists, modellers and statisticians,” they write. Which would take money—though probably quite a bit less than an international effort to build fusion power.

A component of that work already has some robust backing: last month, the Boston College sociologist Juliet Schor released the first results of global experiments that she had designed to test the proposition that a four-day workweek might both increase satisfaction and decrease carbon production. The numbers were remarkable: of the thirty-three companies around the world in the study that, in February, instituted a thirty-two-hour work week, almost all want to continue with the new scheme. And 99.6 per cent of their more than nine hundred employees were in favor. Companies and employees both reported higher productivity and, with it, revenues. There was a slight drop in resignations (even in the wake of the Great Resignation), and people did not use their day off to take on a second job. The effects on carbon emissions were “incomplete,” Schor observed, but there were “significant decreases in the frequency and duration of commuting.”

Taken all in all, the news—from the fusion lab to the four-day workweek—is encouraging: a reminder, perhaps, that even in a world that seems stuck there’s often something new under (or in) the sun.

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