E = MC²

March 18, 2009

mr-fusionMy undergraduate degree was in Bio-medical Engineering.  As part of the curriculum I had to do a “senior project” which many of my peers regarded with disdain and did whatever they could to get the lamest assignment and do the least amount of work.

My advisor – who thought nothing of pulling a bottle of Jack Daniels out of his desk and sharing it with people he liked, had aspirations for me.

“Plasma physics,” he said.

Now, I did okay in physics.  I loved learning about things like torque and the coriolis effect and relativity.  But I had expected my focus to be in something bio-medical.

“Nonsense,” my advisor said.  “You need to expand your horizons.”

So I spent the better part of my senior year in the plasma physics lab, learning about deriving energy from seawater using the same process the sun uses:  Nuclear fusion.

That was long ago.  Energy from controlled fusion was just around the corner, maybe 20 years off.  Last summer the news was that it was still 20 years off.  Fusion is a lot harder to control than everyone thought.  Uncontrolled fusion – Hydrogen bombs – have been around since the Cold War.  Controlled fusion, that’s another story.  Most of the world has given up believing that it could be REAL SOON NOW.

This past month the National Ignition Facility announced that it had reached a milestone in the simultaneous firing of 192 laser beams focused on an inert target, signaling the end of the facility’s massive construction phase.  The facility is huge:  A 10-story building that takes up about 3 football fields, designed to implode a tiny tiny pellet of deuterium with such force that virtually its entire mass is converted to energy, releasing many times more energy than it took to implode it.

With the completion of the facility and one in France using a technique identical to what I studied, commercial production of energy from fusion is just around the corner, if just around the corner means sometime around 2050.

That’s like 40 years from now, and not a moment too soon.  The world’s supply of easily-extracted fossil fuel is estimated to run out in about 75 years.

Like the pyramids, controlled fusion will take many lifetimes of careers to build.  I am more optimistic that it will happen within mine.