Nuclear fusion, the combining of the tiniest element, hydrogen atoms, to produce tremendous amounts of clean energy, isn’t far fetched. The sun (like all stars) has been doing it for a few billion years, and humans have achieved fusion reactions for several decades, known as H bombs.
The trick is to use fusion to generate power without destroying the building housing the machinery and city it’s sitting in.
The failed “cold fusion” episode from 1989 was junk science, but the rigorously peer-reviewed work of researchers at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory shows that they produced about 3 megajoules of energy by bombarding a hydrogen pellet with just over 2 megajoules of energy, in the form of 192 laser beams, a net gain.
There remain endless challenges of replicating this controlled experiment on a larger scale, much less plugging it into the electric grid. Still, scientists see the breakthrough as potentially unlocking a future of clean, plentiful energy, exactly what is needed when greenhouse gas emissions are heating the planet.
Fission energy, the less potent and dirtier cousin of fusion, is already a reliable zero-emissions power source. Sadly, America has turned away from it, even as we’ve set ambitious emissions reduction targets that call for electrifying everything under the sun. The shortsighted decommissioning of Indian Point, which just a few years ago provided 25% of New York City’s power without emitting any carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, continues apace.
Fission has sizable downsides, including radioactive waste no one wants to shoulder. Fusion, if it works, is far cleaner — and orders of magnitude more powerful.
In the middle of last century, the chair of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission said “our children will enjoy in their homes electrical energy too cheap to meter,” which even then many knew was a laughably pollyannish promise.
While we’d be naive today to predict those who, science willing, develop fusion power won’t charge plenty for it, here’s hoping brilliant minds can find a way to produce it. Stranger things have happened.