What Fusion May Mean for a Carbon-Free Future

A tantalizing new scientific breakthrough will mean little if we don’t build the infrastructure to support it.

Transmission towers near the CenterPoint Energy power plant in Houston, Texas
Transmission towers near the CenterPoint Energy power plant in Houston, Texas (Brandon Bell / Getty Images)

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Does the U.S. really want clean energy? A step forward in fusion technology raises questions about what it will take to have a carbon-free future.

But first, here are three new stories from The Atlantic.


The Power of the Sun

My favorite thing about talking with scientists is their ability to infuse the most basic features of existence with a sense of magic. Look at the sun! The light it gives is powered by the protons of hydrogen atoms careening into one another, fusing, and releasing energy in the form of sunlight and heat. Every morning, daybreak is the remnants of a violent reaction more than 90 million miles away!

My least favorite thing about talking with scientists is when they bring me back down to earth.

Earlier this week, scientists at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory announced that they had “produced more energy from fusion than the laser energy used to drive it.” Describing this advancement as a “historic, first-of-its kind achievement” and a “landmark achievement,” the Department of Energy sparked my hopes of a fast-approaching energy transition. Instead of dirty coal plants and extractive natural-gas facilities, I imagined a world powered by tiny, man-made suns.

Soon after this announcement, however, experts began chirping up, acknowledging the historic step taken by these scientists but leveling words of caution about what this might actually mean for a green-energy transition.

“No direct consequence to powerplants,” one Canadian scientist quipped.

“Not obvious it will lead to energy production even in decades,” one physicist warned.

And perhaps most cutting, from Bloomberg’s energy and commodities columnist: “I’m skeptical of surprisingly well-timed announcements by budget-starved laboratories about breakthroughs for technologies decades away.”

Two common critiques have arisen regarding why this step forward is perhaps less meaningful than it first appears.

  1. Net energy depends on what you’re measuring. On the one hand, scientists have now been able to produce more energy than they put in. On the other hand, no they haven’t. The National Ignition Facility is pursuing a form of fusion research called “inertial confinement fusion” in which they charge lasers and then shoot that energy at the surface of a $1 million pellet full of hydrogen isotopes. The heat and pressure created by this method then (hopefully) produce a fusion reaction, which gives off energy.

    Now, while the energy the lasers produced (2.1 megajoules) was smaller than that which the fusion reaction produced (2.5 megajoules), the energy required to charge the lasers was more than 100 times that (roughly 400 megajoules). One scientist cautioned that “the single shot that took weeks to prepare would have to be repeated 100,000 to a million times faster, 1,000-10,000 times higher laser efficiency, [and] cost a millionth cheaper.”
  2. The transition to clean and renewable energy is partly an engineering problem, yes, but it’s mostly a political/regulatory one. We’re leaving huge opportunities to reduce our dependence on coal and natural gas on the table. If we wanted, we could increase solar-, wind-, and nuclear-energy investments; put a price on carbon; and pour billions more into further reducing the price of batteries or even push forward on advancing geothermal energy. Though the development of commercially viable fusion energy in a few decades’ time would be a massive game changer, deploying it would be an equally massive political and regulatory challenge. Where will we build these reactors? How will we build the transmission lines necessary to move that energy and power our nation’s cities? Scientific breakthroughs are amazing, but political ones determine whether they actually become real.

One broad concern mentioned by a few experts, including the Center for Growth and Opportunity’s Eli Dourado, is that “the easiest kind of fusion to achieve … may be permanently uneconomical, never able to compete with other forms of producing steam and powering turbines.” The purpose of the National Ignition Facility, the site of the breakthrough, is not to develop clean energy but to “maintain the reliability, security, and safety of the U.S. nuclear deterrent without full-scale testing.” An important goal, but it wouldn’t be surprising if whatever form commercial fusion hopefully one day takes looks very different. Just as the path to a commercial airplane took us through zeppelins and helicopters, the path to fusion energy will include strategies beyond inertial confinement.

None of this should take away from the genuine breakthrough American scientists have achieved. The milestone of energy output from plasma in a fusion reactor exceeding the energy input is no small feat. And it reminds me of my colleague Derek Thompson’s recent essay underscoring the importance of seeing progress as a collective, not individual, endeavor: “It takes one hero to make a great story,” he wrote, “but progress is the story of us all.”

Related:


Today’s News

  1. The U.S. is increasing the number of Ukrainian troops it will train in Germany.
  2. The Biden administration restarted a program to offer free COVID-19 tests to Americans through the U.S. Postal Service.
  3. The House passed a bill allowing Puerto Rico to hold a binding referendum, the first of its kind, in which voters would choose between statehood, independence, and independence with free association. It’s unlikely to pass the Senate.

Dispatches

Deep Shtetl: Donald Trump is a rare example supporting the “great man of history” theory, Yair Rosenberg argues.

Explore all of our newsletters here.


Evening Read

A close-up photo of a pigeon with people in the background
Martin Parr / Magnum

TikTok Told Me to Adopt a Pigeon

By Sarah Sloat

Finding love at a pub is not so strange, especially if there are few pints involved. But it is rare for the new beloved to be a pigeon. That’s what happened to Hannah Hall, who met her pigeon, Penny, in a beer garden and then took her home.

Hall went viral after posting a TikTok about her meet-cute with Penny, and she has since become a mainstay of #pigeontok, where millions of people watch videos that show a different side of the urban bird more often viewed as a pest than as a pet. Some TikTokers reveal how they found their pigeon—as in, it was on the street, and then it was in their arms. Others offer tips and tricks on how to befriend your own feathered urchin. Hall continues to post videos of Penny and has amassed hundreds of thousands of followers who watch, with awe or disgust, as she builds a life with a pigeon.

Read the full article.

More From The Atlantic

Culture Break

A scene from Three Thousand Years of Longing
MGM

Read. The Song of the Cell, by Siddhartha Mukherjee, uses twirling prose to braid history with science.

Watch. Three Thousand Years of Longing, available to rent on multiple platforms, succeeds because of the chemistry between its two leads, Idris Elba and Tilda Swinton.

And check out our full list of the year’s best movies.

Listen. Spencer Kornhaber lists the 10 best albums of the year.

Play our daily crossword.


P.S.

Another groundbreaking scientific discovery this week was overshadowed by the fusion-energy breakthrough.This might come as a shock but female snakes do, in fact, have clitorises. This might seem like an unlikely frontier for gender equality, but The Atlantic’s Katherine Wu reports that while snake penises have been well studied since the 1850s, our hang-ups around female sex organs (even in snakes!) could have been preventing us from understanding the full anatomy of our slithering reptilian friends.

— Jerusalem

Isabel Fattal contributed to this newsletter.