Will a private-sector fusion solution meet all of our energy needs?

Dec. 31, 2015

Researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Plasma Physics in Greifswald, Germany, are among those on the quest to deliver fusion energy. (Stefan Sauer / EPA)

“(You) can help eradicate poverty, spark a clean energy revolution and provide jobs, opportunities and hope for tomorrow.”

— U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to delegates at the global climate conference in Paris, Dec. 7

“Fusion research has a reputation for consuming time, money and careers in huge quantities while producing a lot of hype and not much in the way of actual fusion. It has earned that reputation many times over.”

— Lev Grossman, Time, Nov. 2

Not quite a century ago, around 1920, physicists started theorizing in earnest — fantasizing, really — about a notion that became a concept that became a mission. Might there be a way to fuse together atoms of hydrogen, the universe’s most plentiful element, and produce energy? As decades passed, this seduction intensified: Suppose easily available materials could generate heat in a process that is relatively safe to operate, virtually pollution-free and endlessly abundant?

Ah yes, the enormous potential of fusion energy, oft-promised but still unfulfilled. We raise it today because of its plausible solutions for so many of our current challenges — from the global to the Midwestern to the residential. True believers tout fusion as the perfect fix for:

Our dependence on oil from troubled lands. Our air pollution from coal-fired generating plants. Our companion fears of climate warming. Our radioactive stores of nuclear waste. Our dangerous movement of oil by rail through densely settled communities. Even our households’ cost of electricity for all of this season’s Christmas lights. Were fusion already perfected, that busy climate confab in France instead could have been a casual tour of wineries in Provence.

What sounds too good to be true just might be … true. We know fusion energy is feasible; the sun produces it around the clock. Unlike the more familiar fission, in which the splitting of an atom’s nucleus releases energy that drives electrical generation, fusion forces nuclei together to throw off energy. Scientists and engineers, most of them tethered to governments or academia, haven’t mastered fusion, let alone made it applicable to billions of human lives. If and when they do, fusion may well change the world, much as the wheel, or the printing press, or antibiotics did. It’s a big deal.

Now comes new reason for hope: A slew of private-sector startup companies are racing helter-skelter to deliver what university and government researchers have not. Private investors carry the financial risk and, yes, envision earning hefty rewards. They’re also, well, energizing what has been a slow quest. A recent Time cover story on these companies and their imaginative techniques included this sardonic passage about fusion’s slow evolution: “The running joke about fusion energy is that it’s 30 years away and always will be. It’s not a very funny joke, but historically, it’s always been true.”

That said, the push for this clean energy process just might bestow its blessings on an energy-hungry world in — let’s stay on the cautious side here — less than those perpetually projected 30 years. One huge challenge: developing reactors that will produce more energy than they consume. Even then, the creation of copious energy doesn’t explain how, exactly, to most efficiently convert it to electricity. Some scientists wise to the ways of plasma physics and electrical engineering expect commercial baby steps in a decade or so. (Still sounds far-off? What, you think that first wheel was built in a day?)

Nearly five years ago, in March 2011, we wrote that while renewable energy sources such as wind and solar hold great promise, scaling them up to electrify cities and factories is a costly prospect. The best power source for the future, today as always, is human ingenuity driving scientific discovery. We hope for the day when Tribune editorials on power generation lean heavily on such words as “geothermal,” “hydrogen” and “fusion,” or other marvels we can’t imagine today.

As this private-sector effort accelerates, expect to begin hearing the names of now-obscure companies — Industrial Heat, Tokamak Energy, Lawrenceville Plasma Physics, Helion Energy and others hoping to become as dominant in their nascent field as Westinghouse (1886) and General Electric (1892) were in the early electrical industry.

The climate conference in France, with its agreement on goals but not mandates, essentially was a global cri de coeur for clean energy. Eliminate coal-burning power plants, petrol-powered engines and other giants of fossil-fueled combustion and you’ve gone a vast way toward easing threats to Earth’s climate. If the production of that clean energy is safe — note that fusion reactors, unlike their fission cousins, simply can’t have runaway reactions — and if that energy also doesn’t yield high-level radioactive waste, then it borders on the ideal.

Ban Ki-moon and his public-sector confreres from 196 governments surely would applaud an announcement that the mysteries of fusion are solved, that commercial production can commence, that the world will be a much cleaner place.

And if that welcome announcement eventually comes from the startup culture of the independent private sector?

They’ll be jealous. But they’ll applaud.