By now the word is widely out that Tuesday’s fusion announcement was less of a news flash (as I initially suggested) and more of a overheated news flicker. The politician-scientists who made the announcement that they’d put 2 Megajoules of energy into a pellet of nuclear kindling, and gotten 3 Megajoules out from nuclear fusion, neglected to mention that it took them about 300 Megajoules — about 100 times as much energy from the electrical grid — to run the experiment in the first place. In other words, they said
- -2 + 3 = +1 !!! Breakthrough!!!!!!!!!
whereas anyone who knew the details would have said
- -300 – 2 + 3 = -299 ? Cool bro, but…
In other words, it was a good day for fusion, but not nearly good enough.
To be fair to everyone, the scientists involved have made tremendous progress in the last few years; they weren’t even close to getting this much energy out until 2021. They’re 10 times ahead of where they were in 2019 and over 100 times ahead of where they were in 2010. If they can continue this progress and figure out how to get another 100 times as much fusion energy out without requiring vastly more electricity, then this all might start to be somewhat interesting.
But even then, it seems it’s going to be very tough to get anything resembling a power plant out of this fusion strategy. Experts seem to think the engineering challenges are immense. (Have any readers heard someone say otherwise?) Perhaps Tokomaks are still the way to go.
I’m annoyed, as I’m sure many of you are. I was myself too trusting, assuming that the politician-scientists who made the claims would be smart enough not to over-hype something that would get so much scrutiny. It’s the 21st century; you can’t come out and say something so undeservedly dramatic without the backlash being loud and swift. Instead they played the political spin game as though it was still the 1970s. I think they were hoping to convince Congress to keep their funding going (and because of an application of their work to nuclear weapons, they may succeed.) But when it comes to nuclear fusion as a solution to our energy/climate crisis — did they really think people wouldn’t quickly figure out they’d been duped? Seriously?
To quote one of the comments on my last post, from Blackstone, “It seems to me that this whole civilization desperately needs a reality check.” I completely agree. We’re so driven now by hype and click-bait that it’s almost impossible to separate the wheat from the chaff. Maybe at some point the people driving this international daily drama show will realize they’re doing serious harm. Clearly we’re not there yet.
But that’s what this blog is for, as are some others in a similar vein. Hopefully I won’t make too many mistakes like the one I made Tuesday, and when I make them, I’ll always fix them. Thank you to the many commenters who raised valid concerns; I know you’ll always keep me honest if I take a false step.