Amid an escalating environmental crisis, nuclear fusion offers a dream — or a pipe dream — of limitless clean energy.
Let’s say that you’ve devoted your entire adult life to developing a carbon-free way to power a household for a year on the fuel of a single glass of water, and that you’ve had moments, even years, when you were pretty sure you would succeed. Let’s say also that you’re not crazy.
This is a reasonable description of many of the physicists working in the field of nuclear fusion. In order to reach this goal, they had to find a way to heat matter to temperatures hotter than the center of the sun, so hot that atoms essentially melt into a cloud of charged particles known as plasma; they did that. They had to conceive of and build containers that could hold those plasmas; they did that, too, by making “bottles” out of strong magnetic fields. When those magnetic bottles leaked—because, as one scientist explained, trying to contain plasma in a magnetic bottle is like trying to wrap a jelly in twine—they had to devise further ingenious solutions, and, again and again, they did.
Over decades, in the pursuit of nuclear fusion, scientists and engineers built giant metal doughnuts and Gehryesque twisted coils, they “pinched” plasmas with lasers, and they constructed fusion devices in garages. For thirty-six years, they have been planning and building an experimental fusion device in Provence. And yet commercially viable nuclear-fusion energy has always remained just a bit farther on. As the White Queen, in “Through the Looking Glass,” said to Alice, it is never jam today, it is always jam tomorrow.
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