The April 19 issue of the online publication Asia Times reports that a potential breakthrough has been achieved in fusion energy that could greatly accelerate the realization of a long-sought source for unlimited future energy. Coming in the midst of the global COVID-19 pandemic, the temporary shutdown of the U.S. economy and the uncertain state of global oil pricing (as Col. Lang pointed out, no peak oil crisis but a severe glut and price collapse), this potential breakthrough comes at a welcome moment.
If there is one lesson coming out of this crisis, it is the need to restore the proper role of science and research as well as critical supply chain production at home or in close locations.
The author, Jonathan Tennenbaum wrote:
"The various fields of science and technology are so closely connected that a breakthrough in one area can rapidly trigger a chain reaction of breakthroughs in other areas. The `impossible' becomes possible, the difficult becomes easy. Ideas, long since abandoned as hopelessly difficult to realize, suddenly take on new lives.
"Hydrogen-boron fusion is one example. In principle, the fusion reaction between nuclei of hydrogen and boron could provide a highly efficient, radioactivity-free form of nuclear energy with practically unlimited fuel reserves. The reaction produces no dangerous penetrating radiation and no radioactive waste, but only stable alpha particles, whose electrical charge even permits a direct conversion of fusion energy into electricity.
"These advantages have long been known, but until recently the physical conditions thought necessary for a hydrogen-boron reactor – including temperatures of billions of degrees Celsius – seemed far beyond anything one might expect to achieve in the foreseeable future."
Recent breakthroughs by Nobel Prize winners Gerard Mourou and Donna Strickland in the field of chirped pulse amplification now make such a ignition possible.
I leave the technical details to the author, who provides an intelligible but detailed description of the process. The consequences of a mastery of fusion energy, which may still take years to realize, is a total revolution in future energy. This goes way beyond the issue of electricity to power a growing global economy. At the temperatures achieved uniquely by fusion, different chemical processes occur. They further open prospects for deep space travel through fusion propulsion. In other words, decades of work may realize the potential of nuclear power without the proliferation spill-over. At a time of great angst and uncertainty, this is good news for the future.