⚛ Is nuclear fusion going to arrive way sooner than expected?
Microsoft thinks it might be a 2020s thing.
“I would like nuclear fusion to become a practical power source. It would provide an inexhaustible supply of energy, without pollution or global warming.” - Stephen Hawking
⚛ Is nuclear fusion going to arrive way sooner than expected?
The biggest scientific and technological breakthrough of last year, or maybe of recent years, might seem obvious. On December 13, the US Department of Energy officially announced that scientists at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory had for the first time achieved a net energy gain — more power out than in — from a nuclear fusion reaction. The power of a star in a laboratory. “Simply put, this is one of the most impressive scientific feats in the 21st century,” said Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm in a news conference back then. “Today we tell the world that America has achieved a tremendous scientific breakthrough.”
So why hesitate in declaring the fusion breakthrough as the clear winner of last year? Three reasons. First, just two weeks before the fusion announcement was the public release of ChatGPT. Perhaps you’ve heard of it. In fewer than six months, the generative AI application has been compared to other fundamental advances such as fire and the wheel with speculation that the next big iteration could be human-level AI.
Second, while the fusion breakthrough was a significant proof-of-concept milestone, most experts said commercialization was not imminent nor was the technique used to generate net energy gains — shootings lots of lasers at a tiny pellet consisting of containing two forms of hydrogen, deuterium and tritium — necessarily the fusion method most likely to lead to commercialization. Commonwealth Fusion Systems, a leading private startup spun out of MIT, uses an approach called magnetic confinement fusion that employs powerful magnetic fields to fuse its hydrogen fuel.
Third, both the approaches used by Lawrence Livermore and CFS would conceivably generate electricity in a fairly mundane way: by first creating heat and then steam to power a turbine that, finally, produces electricity. But as policy analyst Eli Dourado explained back in December:
If you think this sounds like a complicated and expensive way to boil water, you’re right. In fact, this issue may make D-T fusion permanently uneconomical. … The only way that D-T fusion can compete with these other modes of electricity production is if it can produce steam more cheaply. Producing steam with coal is simple and inexpensive. It has been done for hundreds of years. We make fission unnecessarily complicated in the United States, but in principle, it, too, is simple: hold two uranium rods close together, and they make heat. We need advances in geothermal drilling to achieve steam that is hot enough anywhere on the planet to be comparable with steam from fusion, but holes in the ground are likewise simple. In contrast, burning plasma at millions of degrees while confining it with one of the most complicated and costly machines ever built—that is an expensive way to produce steam. … The easiest kind of fusion to achieve, then, may be permanently uneconomical, never able to compete with other forms of producing steam and powering turbines. Does this mean we should give up on fusion? Not necessarily.
As Dourado goes on to explain, there’s another kind of fusion that doesn’t require a steam cycle to generate electricity. Aneutronic fusion rectors would, in theory, directly convert the energy from the plasma into electricity. These reactors would use different atoms, such as helium-3, boron, or protons. But aneutronic fusion is harder to do than the first kind of fusion. It needs higher temperatures and probably more complicated machines. That said, this kind of fusion might be more economical and efficient. So here’s some good news:
In a deal that is believed to be the first commercial agreement for fusion power, the tech giant has agreed to purchase electricity from startup Helion Energy within about five years. Helion, which is backed by OpenAI founder Sam Altman, committed to start producing electricity through fusion by 2028 and target power generation for Microsoft of at least 50 megawatts after a year or pay financial penalties. … “We wouldn’t enter into this agreement if we were not optimistic that engineering advances are gaining momentum,” said Microsoft President Brad Smith. … Helion is building a prototype that it says will demonstrate the ability to produce electricity through fusion next year. “The goal is not to make the world’s coolest technology demo,” Mr. Altman said in an interview. “The goal is to power the world and to do it extremely cheaply.” Mr. Altman, the chief executive officer of OpenAI—the artificial-intelligence startup behind the viral chatbot ChatGPT—said having a first customer is critical for keeping Helion grounded in the realities of business, including working with clients, utilities and electric-grid operators.
This is wild. What Helion energy does is aneutronic fusion using a deuterium and helium-3 fuel source. So the steam cycle is avoided. What’s more, we’re talking about commercial power generation years earlier than what I typically hear, the 2020s rather than the 2030s or 2040s. It’s really hard to overstate what an advance this would be, potentially accelerating the transition away from fossil fuels toward a world powered by abundant, clean, safe energy. Pretty helpful also for creating a multiplanetary civilization. OK, time now for the skepticism, courtesy of MIT Tech Review:
Unless Helion has made some major advances that most organizations would have trumpeted, the company still faces a series of very difficult technical tasks, says Jessica Lovering, executive director of Good Energy Collective, a policy research group that advocates for the use of nuclear energy. That includes producing more energy than the process uses—and converting that energy into a consistent, affordable form of electricity that could flow onto the grid. “So there are two big unproven steps,” says Lovering, adding that she is “skeptical of the technological readiness.”
Adam Stein, director of the Nuclear Energy Innovation program at the Breakthrough Institute, also thinks that Helion still appears to face some big technical obstacles. “That doesn’t mean it’s impossible, but it’s also not the steady march toward victory that is often portrayed,” he says. “These are breakthroughs we’re talking about.” … Paul Wilson, a professor of nuclear engineering at the University of Wisconsin Madison, says it would “surprise” him if a commercial fusion plant was up and running in 2028. But he says it “would be exciting” if it did occur.
But what if? Imagine the world of, say, 2050 powered by nuclear fusion. The breakthrough has enabled the development of new technologies and industries that require large amounts of energy, such as space exploration, desalination, electric vehicles, and AI everywhere. It has improved the quality of life and health of billions of people who now have access to reliable and affordable electricity. It has reduced the dependence on oil and gas imports and increased the energy security and stability of nations. It has also helped mitigate the effects of global warming and environmental degradation by reducing carbon emissions and pollution. Sounds pretty good!
▶ US support for nuclear power soars to highest level in a decade - Akielly Hu, Grist | A Gallup survey released in late April found that 55 percent of U.S. adults support the use of nuclear power. That’s up four percentage points from last year and reflects the highest level of public support for nuclear energy use in electricity since 2012.
▶ Vast says it will launch its first space station in 2025 on a Falcon 9 - Eric Berger, Ars Technica | A private space station company, Vast, announced on Wednesday that it intends to launch a commercial space station as soon as August 2025. After deploying this "Haven-1" space station in low-Earth orbit, four commercial astronauts will launch to the facility on board SpaceX's Crew Dragon vehicle. The California-based company says this crew will then spend about 30 days on board the Haven-1 space station before returning to Earth. As part of Wednesday's announcement, Vast said those four crewed seats are now up for sale, as are those for a second mission that will launch no earlier than 2026.
▶ The threat and promise of artificial intelligence - Martin Wolf, FT Opinion | In 1900, the UK had 3.3mn horses. These animals provided pulling power, transport and cavalry. Today, only recreation is left. Horses are an outmoded technology. Their numbers in the UK have fallen by around 75 per cent. Could humans, too, become an outmoded technology, displaced by machines that are not just stronger and more dexterous but more intelligent, even more creative? The threat, we are told, is remote. Yet this is a matter of belief. Maybe machines could do much of what we need to have done better than we could, with the exception of being human and caring as humans do. Yet even if no such revolution threatens, recent advances in artificial intelligence are highly significant. According to Bill Gates, they are the most important development since personal computers. So, what might be the implications? Can we control them?
▶ Scientists Unveil a More Diverse Human Genome - Elie Dogan, NYT | Unlike the previous reference — which was largely based on the DNA of one mixed-race man from Buffalo, with inputs from a few dozen other individuals, mostly of European descent — the new “pangenome” incorporates near-complete genetic sequences from 47 men and women of diverse origins, including African Americans, Caribbean Islanders, East Asians, West Africans and South Americans.