Science Fiction, Non-Fictional Science, or Divine Design?
Judaism’s commitment to the preservation of the environment is no great mystery—nor is our fascination with energy and light, which we find so clearly in our holy texts. “God said, ‘let there be light;’ and there was light. God saw that the light was good, and God separated the light from the darkness” (Genesis 1: 3-4).At the start of everything God created light, and with the separation of light from dark he created time. To our ancestors the sun may well have been the source of light that God created and then proceeded to create the rest of the world. Shifting from the biblical to the scientific, we know the sun formed, and its light and energy warmed our planet to the temperature conducive to the evolution of life. As we grapple with the realities of the future energy economy, we look again to the source of light for inspiration.
Nuclear fusion, the fusion of individual atoms to form new ones, is the process that powers stars and generates the extraordinary amount of energy on which our world depends. For many years, the cultivation of this energy source has been seen as one of the best long term alternatives to coal, because it can, in theory, generate energy on a similar scale in a consolidated energy grid like the one that powers our country today. To the untrained ear, nuclear fusion reminds us of the nuclear fission technology that events like Chernobyl and the Cold War burned into our collective memories. However, the two only sound similar: Nuclear fusion involves the merging of atoms and nuclear fission, the technology behind Fukushima and Nagasaki, involves breaking apart atoms. Ever heard someone in a sci-fi movie refer to a fusion reactor? Do you remember that energy generator in the latest Batman Movie? These movies reference nuclear fusion not fission. I have talked about fusion before, but it is worth addressing its possibilities for the future of energy in some more depth:
Over the last week, a pair of stories has again pointed to the mixed results of nuclear fusion experiments to date. The US National Ignition Facility (NIF), which has the largest laser in the world, missed a key deadline to attempt an experiment to trigger a fusion reaction. Congress, as part of its appropriation process that funds the lab, required the NIF to successfully generate a fusion reaction that produced more energy than was required to generate it by September 30th of this year. The lab failed to achieve that objective; this represents a setback for a technology which has been a focus of research efforts for decades. However, the lab has sufficient funding to continue operating for another year and will, almost certainly, continue its research for now. However, the long term funding of the facility is now in doubt.
However, two other research facilities, pursuing different processes of creating fusion from each other and from the NIF, each hit significant benchmarks. Sandia National Labs (in my home town) succeeded in generating a fusion reaction that almost produced as much energy as was required to instigate it, which continues to be a major obstacle to fusion reactions as a power source. Meanwhile in Europe, the Joint European Torus completed the installation of a beryllium lined wall and a tungsten floor inside the chamber, which will eventfully be flooded with super heated plasma at a temperature of about 11 million degrees Celsius as part of its efforts to create a sustainable fusion reaction. This achievement is significantly ahead of original targets and of the projected progression of technology for the chamber. Over the next few years, experiments from the facility may prove important to the long term development of fusion energy generation.
To those of us on the ground, we cannot hold out for fusion technology to replace our dependence on coal and carbon energy. Once the technical issues are solved, there will almost certainly be a price premium on fusion energy. While we let the scientists continue experimenting and innovating, we need to keep pushing for renewable energy technologies like wind and solar to reduce our dependence on carbon until we can move beyond carbon fuel sources completely.
Image courtesy of FiberShift.