Fusion energy

It’s been said that actually generating electricity from fusion is “always 30 years away” (since 30 years is what researchers have been claiming for decades). I just read a Scientific American article about the enormous challenges fusion has to overcome in order to be feasible, let alone practical, and I think I can now start saying: it’s never going to happen.

Fusion is a classic nerd-project. It has that nerdy glamorousness about it — harnessing the fundamental reactions that power the stars. If only everything were uniformly dense, spherical, and 100 million degrees, it would work perfectly.

The good news is that nearly all renewable energy is really fusion-powered, because it all starts with the power of the sun. Solar photovoltaics and solar-thermal generators obviously use the sun’s energy directly. The sun also keeps the atmosphere circulating, providing wind for wind turbines and rain for hydro dams. It grows the plants used to make biofuels, and it even grew the plants long ago that eventually became fossil fuels deep underground.

Let’s leave the actual fusion to the stars.


  1. Joshua Psyme said,

    March 20, 2010 @ 10:26 am

    Too bad that scientific American article overstated all of the problems and understates the progress that has been made in the field. Fusion is still the pinnicle in power production, yet it is still one of the most complicated science problems out there. Plasma physics makes brain surgery look like high school algebra.

  2. Robin said,

    March 20, 2010 @ 9:17 pm

    Thanks so much for your comment! I agree that the progress that has been made towards fusion power is truly remarkable, and plasma physics should continue to be an important area of basic scientific research. However, the Scientific American article made me realize how the everyday economics of power generation will affect fusion plants in just the same way that it affects all other methods of electricity production — the capital costs, the maintenance costs, and the cost of supplying inputs to the reactor. In this sense, fusion is not the “pinnacle” of energy production any more than any other method is. Indeed, the incredibly complicated nature of the problem, while exciting for scientists and engineers, is bad news when it comes to keeping costs down in order to compete in a real electricity market.

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