By Terry Caston
It is the year 1820, just around the dawn of the industrial revolution. The world population is about 1 billion. You were probably born on a farm, work hard every day growing all your own food, and you may never leave your hometown your entire life. If you wanted to say happy birthday to granny who lives across the country, you sent a letter in the mail months in advance. If you wanted to read a book when the sun went down, you lit a candle-which you probably made by hand. Flash forward. It is the year 1920, and the world population is about 1.8 billion. You might live in the countryside, but you could go to the big city for a job in a factory. You may be lucky enough to ditch your horse and buggy for the brand new invention, the car. Want to say hi to granny, you could pick up one of those rotary phones, and you could turn a light bulb on to see at night. Fast forward again to today, the world population is about 7.2 billion. It doesn’t really matter where you were born because we have planes, trains and automobiles. Want to talk to granny? Just # or ‘like’ her latest Instagram post, but not Snapchat cause granny doesn’t know how to snap. Want to do anything at all, just ask your phone.
The quality of life has increased dramatically over time, and this is largely due to the availability of energy to power our lights, machines, phones, cars and devices. However, as the population of this planet increases, we put more strain on the global supply of fossil fuels and the environment. You’ve probably heard somewhere on the news, or heard someone talking, or read in an article something about the energy crisis, and this is a very real problem. The gasoline from your cars and the coal and natural gas burned in power plants to keep our phones charged pump dangerous gases into the atmosphere. These gases are clearly a major contributing factor to the rise in temperature of the planet. Water levels will rise and coastal cities will flood, super storms will become more violent, and resources will become scarcer causing more competition and violence to attain them. At current usage rates, it is likely we will run out of oil, gas and coal in your lifetime. Sound scary? It is.
But we humans are pretty good at solving problems, and there is so much free energy around us. Wind powers giant wind turbines to create energy. Solar panels use energy from the sun to create energy or to heat giant tubs of water to evaporate into steam and power turbines. We dam rivers to run water over turbines in hydroelectric power plants. We even use heat from the earth to turn water into steam and power turbines. However renewables only account for 10-20% of the energy generation on the planet, and that demand keeps going up and the developing world industrializes.
Then you’ve got nuclear energy. Every nuclear power plant today is a fission reactor. With fission, we take really big atoms like uranium and plutonium and break them down into smaller atoms. Fission creates massive amounts of energy, but it also creates massive amounts of nuclear waste which has to be put into barrels and buried for millions of years. There is also a limited supply of nuclear fuel, maybe a couple hundred years, and the safety and security risks around the radioactive waste make nuclear fission unpopular. It doesn’t look too great, but there is one energy source that is the holy grail of holy grails and would solve all of the world’s energy problems tomorrow.
Can you think of an energy source that is so powerful that at 93 million miles away it will literally burn your retinas out of your eyes if you stare at it for too long? The sun operates by nuclear fusion. This is different from fission which was discussed above. Where fission is splitting a really big atoms, fusion works by smashing two very small atoms together like hydrogen, and making helium. When you smash these two hydrogens together, the resulting helium atom is just a tiny bit lighter than the two hydrogen atoms. You’ve heard 2+2 = 4, this is more like 2+2 = 3.999999. That tiny little bit of mass is converted completely into energy. Ever heard of that famous Einstein equation E = mc2? The E is energy (what we want). The ‘m’ is mass (that tiny little bit of difference between the hydrogen and helium). And the c (this is the important part), the c is the speed of light. That’s 670,600,000 miles per hour. And then it’s squared. That’s a lot of zeros. So moral of the story, tiny bit of mass is A LOT of energy.
So where do we find the fuel for this magical fusion? What has hydrogen in it? Water! Have you ever seen a picture of earth from space? We have A LOT of water. And remember how fission had nuclear waste? Well there is much less nuclear waste from fusion, and the waste is safe to humans in hundreds of years, not millions of years. Can you imagine a world where we had an almost infinite energy supply (fusion) from an essentially unlimited fuel supply (sea water)? Energy would be free. Wars over oil and fossil fuels would stop tomorrow. We would stop burning fossil fuels, and the only place you’d find gasoline powered automobiles would be museums. So great, fusion sounds awesome, why are we wasting time reading this blog, let’s go fuse some stuff now right?
Wrong. We’ve been working at this for a long time, and it’s not easy. You’ve got to get two positively charged atoms together, and they don’t want to get close. Ever tried to push the positive side of two magnets together? It’s kind of like that times on a much bigger scale. In order to do this, we have to heat the reactants up into a material called a plasma, and that takes a lot of energy to start. The only places we’ve been able to create the conditions to start fusion on Earth are in thermonuclear explosions. The sun can do this because it’s really big and has gravity on its side but much harder in a lab. You’re essentially making a tiny star in the lab. Then you have to contain the little star which is a whole other set of engineering challenges. This was in fact the entire premise behind the 2004 movie Spiderman 2, where Dr. Octopus makes a fusion reactor, and then he goes crazy. We’ve been able to create fusion reactions on Earth as a proof of concept, but only for very short periods of time, seconds, before the reaction stops. Though people have been seriously researching fusion since the 1950’s, commercial fusion power plants are still out of reach. This is a problem that will probably be solved by the next generation of scientists who are middle school students today, so if you really want to save the world and think about going into fusion research, I guarantee the vine or snapchat of the first sustainable fusion reaction will get a lot of likes.