The First Energy-Positive Fusion Reaction Sparks a Whole Lotta Hope—and Hype

Here is the sun.

Finally, we made it. Some 4.6 billion years after hydrogen molecules first broke apart deep in the sun (and 118 years after Albert Einstein’s famous equation theorized how it should be possible to obtain similar results here on Earth), scientists at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California managed to create a controlled nuclear fusion reaction that produced more energy than the lasers delivered to it.

For science, news is about as important as it gets. Fusion Power is more than just a new way to charge your smartphone. It is the holy grail of physics and engineering, a triumph of human effort that represents our mastery of energy and matter, the fundamental building blocks of the universe itself – and of our ability to harness these elements to fuel human civilization for as long as that civilization lasts.

Predictably, the news sent a flurry of headlines trumpeting the implications of the breakthrough: the obsolescence of fossil fuels; victory in the war against climate change; the end of poverty; responding to global water scarcity; and the solution to a variety of other problems of mankind. And fair enough, some estimates suggest that Earth’s oceans contain enough hydrogen to power our entire planet at current energy consumption levels for about two billion years, although fusion is currently created by smashing together two hydrogen isotopes: deuterium, which is abundant in seawater, and tritium, which is extremely rare.

Equally predictable, the news also produced a flurry of “not-so-quick” denials, criticisms and comments meant to pour cold water on such flights of fancy. And in fact, while a positive net reaction is a major scientific milestone, a commercially viable fusion reactor is at least decades away. Building one will require practical solutions to a range of technical and design puzzles, solutions that will likely cost hundreds of billions in research – money that would be better spent trying to solve a variety of the world’s most pressing problems. humanity.

The lob-and-volley between hope and hype is normal these days. Unlike, say, the moon landings of yesteryear, today’s breakthroughs function as a charged ideological battleground, where debates on politics, economics, social policy, morality and other topics quickly overwhelm the spirit of celebration. And somewhere over there, Mr. Einstein is shaking his head.

March 10, 2023

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