A technology that could completely disrupt the global economy, devastate the energy industry, and change our civilization could be commercially viable within 10 years. That technology is fusion, and recent technological advances could make it viable in less than a decade.
The idea of harnessing hot fusion – the process by which the sun generates heat and light – for industrial or commercial purposes is hardly a new one; scientists have been working on it for decades. What’s different today is that some new technologies, such as computer algorithms and super conducting materials, might make it possible to quickly and cheaply build a working fusion reactor.
Why Fusion Would be So Disruptive
That would be a true paradigm changer in energy because one tablespoon full of hydrogen fuel burned in a hot fusion reactor would produce as much energy as 28 tons of coal, Forbes estimated. Since the average railcar carries around 115 tons of coal, that means four teaspoons of hydrogen fuel would provide as much energy as a railcar.
Therefore, a few liters or gallons of the hydrogen fuel could take the place of a 125-car coal train. Think of the economic disruption. Dozens, if not hundreds, of people, such as miners and railroad workers, thrown out of work. Entire industries, such as railroads and mining, made redundant.
To add icing to the cake, a fusion reactor would conceivably generate that power without putting out radiation, air pollution, or greenhouse gases. It would be cheaper and there would be no air pollution, no global warming, and little waste. Vast amounts of expensive infrastructure, such as rail lines, coal storage facilities, ships, and so on.
Also eliminated will be similar infrastructure used to ship natural gas and oil. Theoretically, fusion could kill off entire industries, such as coal mining, and greatly reduce the demand for other fuels, such as oil and natural gas.
Fusion could almost be here
Cynics have long claimed that fusion is always 20 years away, but that may no longer be the case because of recent technological advances. Experts familiar with the field now think this most disruptive of energy technologies could be commercially viable in 10 to 20 years because of recent technological advances.
It might even be possible to build a working hot fusion reactor of the tokamak design right now by using off-the-shelf technology, MIT professor Dennis Whyte thinks. Whyte and a team of students believe that commercially available superconductors and superconducting tape made from rare earth metal could be used to create the magnetic coils needed for a tokamak reactor.
A tokamak reactor uses magnetic coils to control fusion reactions, which can be created in the lab right now, but not controlled. Whyte’s team thinks that their reactor would be far cheaper than the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (or ITER), a massive tokamak reactor now under construction in France. The ITER’s estimated cost is $40 billion.
Professor Steven Cowley, the CEO of Britain’s UK Atomic Energy Authority, went even further. He thinks fusion is here now, it just is not commercially viable.
“For $20 billion in cash, I could build you a working reactor,” Cowley told Popular Mechanics. “It would be big, and maybe not very reliable, but 25 years ago, we didn’t even know if we’d be able to make fusion work. Now, the only question is whether we’ll be able to make it affordable.”
Silicon Valley Enters the Fusion Race
Nor are Whyte and Cowley the only people that think that way about General Fusion, a company partially financed by Amazon.com boss Jeff Bezos that believes it can achieve hot fusion by using a simpler technology involving fusion controlled hammers, Fortune reported. The geniuses at Helion Energy, backed by PayPal founder Peter Thiel, think that they can develop a working fusion reactor the size of a truck. Tri-Alpha, a company backed by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, also claims to have made a small scale fusion breakthrough.
These companies are also attracting venture capital. General Fusion has raised $94 million and Helion has raised $140 million, Fortune reported. That’s chump changed compared to the money ITER and the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory are spending on fusion, which makes it a dramatic paradigm shift. Private companies are now doing the kind of research reserved for governments with a few million dollars.
Nor is it just startups that are working fusion. Scientists at Lockheed-Martin’s (NYSE: LMT) legendary skunkworks, the people that invented the Stealth bomber, claim that they could be able to have working prototype of a compact fusion reactor within five years. Another defense contractor, General Atomics, has a fusion energy research project that is working on its own version of magnetic fusion.
Is Today’s Fusion like Computers in the 1970s?
The situation in fusion today is much like that in computer technology in the 1970s. Back in 1975, computers were giant centralized machines under the control of a few large institutions, such as corporations, governments, universities, and the military. Computer science was an arcane science, the province of researchers at a few large universities or giant companies. Computers were symbolized by the IBM man in his black suit and matching tie.
Yet within 10 years, all that had changed; computer research had moved out of the university and into garages. All sorts of people were doing computer research in garages, basements, backrooms, and offices. High school students were writing code and college dropouts were creating software. The cutting edge of computer technology was small companies such as Apple.
Computers in the 1960s were like fusion reactors today: they were big unreliable, impractical, and undependable. It took 20 years of tinkering and research to make them practical for business use and another 10 years to get a reliable computer into our homes.
If Professor Whyte is correct, the same thing could be about to happen to fusion and nuclear research in general. One reason why it is about to happen is, ironically enough, the computer revolution. Modern physics research requires a vast amount of computer power to perform the mathematical computations necessary; one of the first uses for electronic computers was developing nuclear weapons during World War II.
Back in the 1970s or 80s, a person that wanted to do such research had to go to a large university or government laboratory and beg or bribe the bureaucrats who ran the place to give him access to a computer. That effectively shut out the kind of people that develop new technologies: the oddballs, the mavericks, the garage inventors, the kind of people who are rarely welcome at large bureaucratic institutions.
Just imagine Steve Jobs, who often wore no shoes and sometimes refused to shower, walking into a university president’s office and asking to use the computer. There’s a good chance security would have been called to escort him off campus.
Today, a person that wants to do that kind of research can order more computing power from Dell or Apple than was available to those large institutions for a few hundred dollars. All he or she has to do is set it up and get to work, which is part of the reason why the new fusion research is taking place. Anybody that can talk a rich person into writing a few checks can set up a nuclear research laboratory.
That means fusion could be about to take off as much as computer science did in the 1970s. This could lead to a fusion explosion similar to the computer explosion.
Cold Fusion Returns
This is already happening in the arcane and obscure world of cold fusion or low energy nuclear reaction (LENR). Those over 40 probably remember cold fusion as the energy technology that chemists Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischmann claimed to create back in 1989.
Basically, Pons and Fleischmann claimed it was possible to create nuclear fusion at room temperature by using an electrochemical process rather than high temperature; hence, the deceptive nickname “cold fusion.” Back in 1989, Pons and Fleischmann were unable to prove their claims, but since then, dozens of inventors and scientists have been able to create something like cold fusion by using similar processes.
Unfortunately, there is no scientific theory to explain it, which means cold fusion seems to violate the laws of physics, which upsets the physics establishment. The physics establishment was effectively able to stifle the research, largely because it made them look foolish, although some scientists and garage inventors have kept at it.
Now one of them, the controversial Italian-American inventor Andrea Rossi, has managed to create a cold fusion device so impressive that he was able to get Tom Darden, the CEO and founder of the $2.2 billion private equity group Cherokee Fund, to sink $11 million into it, Fortune reported. Rossi also recently got a U.S. Patent for his process. Darden and another hedge fund, Britain’s Woodford Equity Management, are planning to back a number of other LENR researchers.
Darden thinks LENR could be viable because there have been around 50 successful cold fusion experiments around the world since 1989. Some individuals, including Rossi, claim that they are close to commercialization.
Here Comes the Fusion Economy
It looks as if we could be on the verge of a fusion revolution, a development that could be the most disruptive change in energy use since the gasoline-driven internal combustion engine came into wide use in the early 1900s. We have already seen the widespread havoc wreaked by lower oil prices.
One has to wonder how much damage and devastation a technology that could make coal and possibly natural gas obsolete could cause. Millions thrown out of work, gigantic companies bankrupted, governments deprived of tax bases, could be among the effects of the fusion revolution.
The world could be a very different place in just 20 years because of fusion. Those who doubt should remember that almost nobody in the 1970s saw the computer revolution, or the new economy it created, coming. One has to wonder if history is about to repeat itself.