This is yet another story that has been flying under the proverbial radar for a couple of years now, but it could mean that the days of Big Oil’s dominance over our economic system and our world are coming to an end, a lot sooner than the executives at Exxon-Mobil and BP would like to think.
The good news is that over the past two years, scientists in Germany, China, South Korea, the U.K. and the U.S. have come very close to finding the Holy Grail of sustainable energy – sustainable nuclear fusion. According to M.I.T. Research scientist Earl Marmar, the world’s energy grid could be powered by a clean, sustainable ball of superheated plasma within the next twelve years.
For many years, cold fusion has really been regarded by the scientific community as being akin to the legendary King Arthur’s Holy Grail – an unachievable ideal. That is understandable. Creating a fusion reaction basically amounts to creating a miniature star, like our sun, and keeping it going while at the same time keeping it confined and under control.
In fact, one could consider a star to be Nature’s own fusion reactor. Unlike nuclear fission, which involves splitting the atom, fusion is the joining, or “fusing” of two lighter atomic nuclei (hydrogen and deuterium), forming a single, heavier nucleus. This reaction releases tremendous amounts of energy in the process, and is what has powered our sun for approximately five billion years.
The advantages of nuclear fusion over fission are many. It is far safer, produces much less in the way of radioactive waste, and can use seawater as fuel. The big problem so far is containing plasma heated to around 200 million degrees and sustaining the process for any length of time, and doing so in a cost-effective manner.
Currently, fusion reactions are carried out in a device known as a tokamak – a donut-shaped apparatus weighing 23,000 tons and capable of heating plasma to 150 million degrees Celsius (over 300 million degrees Fahrenheit), which is ten times hotter than our sun. Needless to say, such equipment doesn’t come cheap. The solution, according to Marmar, is to make a smaller reactor.
Major steps forward in this direction were taken recently here and in the U.K. In the U.S., researchers increased the efficiency of the process by adding a third element – in this case, helium-3 ions. The research was published last summer in Nature Physics.
Meanwhile, in the U.K., a private company known as Tokamak Energy built a machine with a smaller donut hole, which in 2015 sustained a plasma reaction for a record-breaking 29 hours. Their latest model, the ST40, became operational in August, and is expected to produce plasma at a temperature of 15 million degrees by this fall.
There is still a long road ahead and many problems to be solved before sustainable nuclear fusion becomes economically feasible – but recent breakthroughs are promising to break Big Oil’s stranglehold over the planet within our lifetimes.
And there doesn’t seem to be much that the fossil fuel industry can do to stop it.