Friday, May 22, 2009

Thick and fast

There has been a lot of science in the news lately (hurrah!); we've had Hubble, Herschel, Planck, Ida and many others, BUT just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water we have another one, NIF!

Relegated to the backwaters of the BBC science pages here this little understated story contains few words but big implications for our planet. The subject is nuclear fusion, usually these two words induce a coma in readers, "been there done that" is the reaction most people I know give it. Fusion has been one of those technologies that have been "just around the corner" for 40 years now, never seeming to deliver on the original promise of unlimited power and hideously complicated in terms of theory and practice, impractical and uneconomic some have said.

But now we have third generation devices entering commissioning stages, this one in California uses lasers to focuses 500 trillion watts of power (more than the entire peak energy capacity of the USA) onto a ball-bearing sized pellet of hydrogen fuel. It's the first time this much energy can be harnessed on demand in this way.

Now I know what you're thinking, so what, geeks in white coats playing with fire etc., but think about it. Hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe, it is effectively limitless; being able to use hydrogen to generate power like this would potentially solve all our energy needs and global warming in a single step. Hydrogen is also available in space; future vehicles powered by fusion could in theory re-fuel in space thereby overcoming the current crippling constraint on distance because of the amount of fuel that can be physically carried.

Unlimited cheap energy would also facilitate faster and better computing resources, public transport systems, food production, water desalination and cheaper raw materials among many other vital things. Would access to unlimited energy cause us to destroy our planet at an increased speed perhaps? possibly, as with all advances I think care would be needed, however the possibilities are tantalising, I hope I live to see it.

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