The joke goes that reliable fusion power is about 50 years away, and has been for about 60 years. This may be the case, but it is also a simplistic dismissal of a scientific process that has been going on for decades. There has been a lot of progress on fusion power, and we are now approaching some new developments that could bootstrap us into a fusion energy future.
Extremetech has a good piece on current and pending developments in fusion power, and what might happen next.
Hopefully, though, a new discovery made by Princeton Plasma Physics Lab (PPPL) — the home of Project Matterhorn in the ’50s and ’60s — could result in magnetic confinement fusion that breaks even, or even produces electricity.
Hear that? A process that produces more energy than it consumes. This is big, because it could be self-perpetuating. The fuel is essentially free, being the most common element in the universe (Hydrogen).
What would this mean for our current energy hungry society? Good question. I suspect it would take a lot of building to get up to meeting existing demand, and demand is sure to continue rising. Nevertheless, this could be really big. In about 30 years.
Meanwhile, at ITER, a vast fusion chamber that’s three stories high is due to begin fusing deuterium-tritium fuel in 2026. ITER is hoping to produce 500 megawatts over 1,000 seconds from just 50 megawatts of input power and 0.5 grams of hydrogen fuel. If it’s a success, an actual fusion power plant, called DEMO, will be built.
This could be one of those things that changes everything. Pure unallowed grist for the SF mills. First of all, fusion power as currently envisioned would be the domain of large utilities – highly centralized and structured. We couldn’t have little fusion plants all over the place, too expensive and too dangerous.
Cheap energy has been the fuel of most of the rapid development of the 20th century. It is hard to imagine a future that includes transportation, lights and the internet without cheap energy. The big challenge will be to figure out ways to distribute it and store it. Of course, battery technology is also improving at dramatic rates.
Politically, I don’t see cheap fusion power eliminating a demand for oil. Global hotspots would remain so, but it is unlikely there would be any conflict over hydrogen. Attention might shift away from places like the Middle East, though humans love to fight irrationally so that is by no means certain.
Space exploration could be impacted. Currently the biggest cost of spaceflight is the energy required to escape Earth’s gravity. There may be ways to reduce that cost (though I personally hope someone will build a space elevator), and there will certainly be impact on space activities outside the gravity well, if fusion power becomes available off-planet.