It seems we’re always twenty years away from fusion power, if you read the popular news sites. How far away are we really? Excerpt:
I’d like to think we’re smarter than the Sun.
Let’s compare and contrast. Humans, on the one hand, have made enormous advances in science and technology, built cities, cars, computers, and phones. We have split the atom for war and for energy.
What has the Sun done? It’s a massive ball of plasma, made up of mostly hydrogen and helium. It just, kind of, sits there. Every now and then it burps up hydrogen gas into a coronal mass ejection. It’s not a stretch to say that the Sun, and all inanimate material in the Universe, isn’t the sharpest knife in the drawer.
And yet, the Sun has mastered a form of energy that we just can’t seem to wrap our minds around: fusion. It’s really infuriating, seeing the Sun, just sitting there, effortlessly doing something our finest minds have struggled with for half a century.
Why can’t we make fusion work? How long until we can finally catch up technologically with a sphere of ionized gas?
Well, there is one significant problem; the Sun has one advantage the the folks trying to build an economically viable fusion reactor lack: Mass. About 330,000 times the mass of the entire Earth, in fact.
The Sun sustains fusion reactions because of this mass. It has been fusing hydrogen into helium for almost 5 billion years, and will continue to do so for another 5 billion years. The Sun’s mass and the resulting (enormous) gravity well does the rest.
Fusion reactors face a more complicated problem. In the lack of a solar-sized gravity well, fusion reactors rely on a magnetic field or focused high-energy lasers to compress hydrogen isotopes into a fusable mass.
But from what I’ve been reading on the topic, it’s not impossible. Once the basic physics are established, the rest is a matter of engineering. I’m pretty sure we’ll break the last few barriers eventually; then the Earth will realize abundant, cheap energy. It’s mostly a matter of effort.
The energy that powers the Sun could power the Earth.