While discussing the best solutions to overcome our energy crisis in the future, nuclear fusion always pops up as the ultimate solution. And, it is true: nuclear fusion is the Holy Grail of energy generation (if we exclude exotic types of physics we do not know enough about, like antimatter, dark energy etc.).
Nuclear fusion has a fantastic energy yield, it needs hydrogen atoms to operate (the most abundant element in the universe), it produces almost no nuclear waste, and, in the end, it is the process that makes all the stars in our universe keep running. But, with all these advantages, there are some obstacles. Firstly, from a technological point-of-view, we still do not know how to do it, at least not in cost-efficient way.
Today, when we ask about the status of nuclear fusion research, we usually get an answer that fusion reactors will be available in the next 10 years. Unfortunately, that same prediction has been made each year for the past 40 years. In defense of science, fusion is really a hard problem to solve; temperatures needed to begin nuclear fusion are enormous, in the range of 100 million degrees Kelvin (just for comparison, the surface of the sun has a temperature of 5,778 K). With temperatures like those, it is very hard to contain plasma inside of the magnetic field, which is again necessary, in order to sustain fusion for a longer time and actually generate electricity.
Furthermore, there is a significant price tag that goes along with nuclear fusion research.
Worldwide investments over the last few decades have exceeded $50 billion US,*1 and we are still not there, so the frequently asked question is: Are we investing too much?
This usually raises another question: in comparison with/to what?
For instance, if we compare US$50,000,000,000 with the average salary in the US ( around $45,000 *2 a year), the fusion expenditure surely looks like a big amount. First, we need to take into account that this $50 billion is an inflation-adjusted figure and, more importantly, it is an accumulated amount over last 50 years. But, when we compare an investment with a salary, we would need to compare this number with 50 years salaries — around $2.3 million, which is a compounded amount for all salaries over that period of time. That means that, during 50 years, we invested only 25,000 people’s salaries for something we usually call the most important project we can imagine for probably the next 200 years. The United States alone has 350 million people; that would mean that, for 50 years, each year, every US citizen paid only $3. If we consider that $50 billion is a total figure for the entire world, the amount each citizen paid is around 14 cents. It is obvious that amount of money is miniscule and, at the same time, somewhat paradoxical if we consider nuclear fusion the most important project we can imagine. If we consider it so important, why are we paying less than the price of a sandwich each year?
At this point, if we consider that we spend on average $74 on Halloween (total around $6.9 billion)*3 each year and 10 times more on Christmas (around $800 per person) *4, the entire picture is beginning to look like a house of mirrors. I do not deny that Christmas and Halloween are important for our western culture, but energy is slightly more important. If you do not believe me, let’s conduct a small thought experiment: imagine what would happen if we would “run out” of Christmases and Halloweens for one year. So, for one year, we would not celebrate, buy gifts, make dinners, or spend money on fireworks. What would happen? Would that endanger our existence on earth? Would our civilization collapse?
Nothing even remotely similar would happen: we would be richer by about $1000, and, in the process, probably be healthier by avoiding all that heavy food and sweets. Maybe, we would miss making our loved ones “happy,” but, surely, we would not disappoint them either by choosing so many wrong or unwanted presents.
Now, what would happen if we, from some unknown reason, run out energy?
Our civilization runs on energy: our cars, our hospitals, street lights, airplanes, ships, computers, mobile phones, internet, water in our pipes, heating and cooling, all our home appliances, all our factories, food we prepare, store and keep refrigerated — every single thing you can imagine depends on energy, and let me repeat once again: no internet.
Well, without energy, try imagining riots, looting, massive hysteria on the streets, a full-scale Mad Max scenario multiplied a few thousand times... Yes, it would be that bad, and probably even a bit worse.
It is a no-brainer: while the fossil fuel reserves are getting depleted, we need to find new sources of energy, or civilization as we know it will cease to exist. The only thing we need to answer is whether we should invest in some more reliable and more predictable source of energy, something that we already know how it works, or should we put our bets on some other, more exotic energy sources?
Shouldn’t we just put all that money into solar, for instance?
At this point, we know that solar works and that, each day, solar systems are cheaper and cheaper, and, with nuclear fusion, we have not made any remarkable advance. Even with German and Chinese*5 *6 progress this year, we are still far away from a full-scale, working fusion reactor.
Yes, solar, wind, and tidal energy are cheap, and they are getting cheaper and more reliable every day, but we should not stop our research on nuclear fusion. We should even put more money into it.
If we somehow succeed in maintaining the human population around similar numbers as we have today, renewable energies will be sufficient to meet our needs for a very, very long time, but, if we want to get to the stars and flourish in the universe, we need to continue exploring all possible options that will allow us to generate energy in large quantities.